COVID-19

Gas stations depend on getting customers inside. Is that a problem right now?

Scott Tong Mar 30, 2020
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Some health experts question the safety of small convenience stores during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Joshua Lott/Getty Images
COVID-19

Gas stations depend on getting customers inside. Is that a problem right now?

Scott Tong Mar 30, 2020
Some health experts question the safety of small convenience stores during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Joshua Lott/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

One industry bracing for the coming COVID-19 recession is convenience stores. The country has 150,000 of them, most connected to gas pumps.

These merchants depend on people coming into the shops — these days for quick food as well as cleaning and paper products. But are all small minimarts in tight quarters ready from a health and hygiene standpoint?

While driving around his city, Ed Hirs noticed several gas stations offering discounts — up to 10 cents per gallon if you pay cash.

“There’s an encouragement to go in and talk to the clerks, maybe just to drive sales in the convenience store,” said Hirs, an energy economist at the University of Houston. “But it would seem to misplace the social distancing that we’re trying to accomplish.”

Hirs said that in the past, gas stations gave cash discounts to pass along savings if credit card fees were avoided. Now, he said, it’s to bring foot traffic to the store. That’s where the real money’s made, according to Richard Ingro, who works at the Rainbow Fuel Stop in Meeker, Oklahoma.

“Our deli and our inside sales are what we survive off of. Gas has never really been it,” he said.

But convenience stores are tight quarters where shoppers are close together. They touch coffee pots and donut cases. But Ingro said his store is safe.

“We hose this place down just about every 20 to 30 minutes now,” Ingro said. “We wipe down tables. Go out there [and] wipe down pumps. No more refills, you cannot refill your cup.”

Some public health advocates have concerns, though. Small stores don’t always have cleaning staffs. And, said workplace health specialist Nellie Brown at Cornell, the employees they do have may be overworked.

“I’m concerned that if people working in a store don’t get sufficient breaks, they’re not going to get time to wash their hands,” Brown said. “As people get chronically sleep deprived, their immune systems decline in efficiency.”

The industry group for convenience stores said it’s sharing guidelines on cleaning, distancing and avoiding shared handles and utensils. But it won’t be easy, according to epidemiology and public health professor Melissa Laska at the University of Minnesota.

“They have to just say, ‘We’re not going to sell bakery items. We’re not going to sell salad bar items, we’re not going to sell coffee,’ ” Laska said. “That can really cut into the bottom line.”

For all the challenges, convenience stores do have permission to stay open. The federal government deems their workers essential.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy begins reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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