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Are home improvement stores still essential? People can’t stay away.

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STAUNTON – On Saturday morning, the Lowe’s on Richmond Avenue was abuzz. The parking lot was full and people were flocking to the main entrance or garden center. 

Even after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam gave an executive order to stay-at-home last week, people were still filling their truck beds with mulch and other gardening items. Some donned face masks and gloves. Inside, some workers had gloves and masks, while others did not. Large plastic screens had been put up near registers and customer service areas.

Lowe’s, Home Depot and other home improvement stores have been deemed essential (which are home improvement, hardware, building material and building supply) retailers.

Garden associate at The Home Depot Sarah Johnson waters plants with a mask on to protect herself from the spread of COVID-19 Saturday afternoon, April 4, 2020.  (Photo: MACABE BROWN / COURIER & PRESS)

So, how can you social distance there? And what constitutes an essential visit to these stores?

The answer: There isn’t a clear one. It comes down to the customer to use their best judgment in what is essential. Do you need the garden soil? Would it be better to wait to order countertops or buy living room paint?

What does “essential” mean in common-sense terms?

According to Pedro Chen, spokesperson with Lowe’s, the store has been taking preventative measures per CDC guidelines to “ensure the safety of our operations.” Chen said the health and well-being of the store’s associates and customers is a top priority. 

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“Our stores remain open to ensure our customers, government officials and first responders have access to the essential products and services they need to keep their families safe, their businesses running and their communities healthy,” Chen said. “Two-thirds of our business is non-discretionary, meaning projects that require critical repairs or maintenance, that are essential to allowing people to be able to safely stay at home.”

Essential items are located throughout the store.

“We can’t determine who is purchasing a refrigerator because it’s broken or because it’s an upgrade,” Chen said.

Lowe’s stores have signage encouraging social distancing measures as well as overhead announcements every 15 minutes to remind customers. There are also clear signs and floor markers to reinforce CDC social distancing guidelines.

Customers also have the option to checkout via mobile point of sale.

Other measures include:

  • Enhancing daily cleaning efforts
  • Increasing time spent cleaning and sanitizing stores
  • Rescheduling non-essential services and installations
  • Adding additional third-party cleaning
  • Installing plexiglass shields at cash registers

Additional policies were added April 2:

  • All stores close at 7 p.m. daily to replenish essential products and thoroughly clean and sanitize our stores daily.
  • Masks and gloves available to all associates in the workplace who want them. All N95 medical masks were placed on a stop sale and are being donated to hospitals to protect frontline healthcare workers, along with other personal protective equipment for first responders in our communities.
  • An app was developed to implement a new customer limit protocol, available now on associates’ handheld devices. Each store manager can now monitor foot traffic and limit entrance based on CDC and local guidelines.
  • There are dedicated social distancing ambassadors who will be responsible for monitoring customer flow in our garden centers and front-end areas and enforce customer limits to allow proper social distancing.

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As for Home Depot, they’ve enacted a limited amount of people inside the store, according to spokesperson Christina Cornell. Home Depot is also closing all its stores at 6 p.m.

“We’ve been aggressively reinforcing social distancing, and starting last week we are now limiting the number of customers in all of our stores,” Cornell said. “The reason for the change in ours is so that we have an opportunity to deep clean the store and restock.”

Have you seen instances where social distancing isn’t being applied? Have worries or concerns with it? Email reporter Laura Peters at [email protected]

The limit of people pertains to the square footage of the store, which can be between 100-150 people in the store at one time. They’ve also eliminate their spring promotions, like Spring Black Friday, which is the store’s major sale and revenue driver.

“We don’t want to drive those crowds,” Cornell said. 

As for closing certain sections down or not permitting certain sales, Cornell said no. 

“There are some municipalities that have had some ordinances where we’ve had to stop in certain sections of the store but” not everywhere, Cornell said. “I know a lot of people have called out our garden section, and we are trying to enforce that social distancing in the garden section, but there are essential items we sell there like propane, retaining walls … different things like that.”

Cornell said Home Depot is having trouble deeming what is essential and what isn’t.

“I don’t want to speculate on what someone deems essential and non-essential,” Cornell said. 

As for the questions about curbside pick-ups, for Lowe’s you can order online and pick-up at the store, except you may have to go inside to get your items. According to a release, stores may be trying to do curbside efforts. The same for Home Depot, except they are trying to rollout more curbside options at their stores. Both offer delivery for a shipping charge. 

Smaller garden operations, like JMD Farm Market and Garden Center, are offering online ordering and curbside pick-up for less contact and proper social distancing. Another local place — Staunton Plant Company — offers online ordering, delivery and payments and only allows 10 people on the lot with a 6-foot distancing room.

The News Leader reached out the Gov. Northam’s office for a clearer definition about what is essential at home improvement stores under order 53 but did not get an immediate response. 

Have a news tip?

You can reach reporter Laura Peters at [email protected]. Follow her @peterslaura.

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