COVID-19

Risk of getting COVID at the grocery store is higher in low-income neighborhoods

Samantha Fields Nov 30, 2020
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A bodega worker restocks produce in Brooklyn earlier this year. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
COVID-19

Risk of getting COVID at the grocery store is higher in low-income neighborhoods

Samantha Fields Nov 30, 2020
Heard on:
A bodega worker restocks produce in Brooklyn earlier this year. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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When Christel Orange goes into one of the little corner stores in her neighborhood to grab some groceries these days, it is not easy to keep her distance from other people.

“The lines are going down the aisles. So when someone’s shopping, they have to continue to say, ‘Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me,’ due to the fact that someone is standing in the line down the aisle,” said Orange, 53, who lives in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood of Chicago. 

But those tiny stores are her only options if she wants to get groceries without getting in the car. Within walking distance, Orange said, “we have nothing but gas station shopping, corner store shopping and, of course, the liquor store.”

And all of them are usually pretty crowded. At the bigger grocery stores she drives to to do most of her shopping, the checkout lines often stretch down the aisles too.

That is one of the main reasons a recent study published in the journal Nature found the risk of being exposed to COVID at the grocery store is twice as high in low-income neighborhoods as in high-income neighborhoods. 

“Grocery stores visited by lower-income individuals have a higher number of people per square feet, and also their visitors stay a bit longer,” said Serina Chang, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University and lead author of the paper.

The study used the cellphone location data of 98 million people in 10 large metro areas to look at where people are most likely to be exposed to the virus, and found restaurants, gyms, coffee shops, hotels and places of worship to be among the highest-risk places. 

It also underlined something that is already well-known: that low-income people and people of color were at higher risk of exposure during the first wave of the pandemic because they were less likely to be able to stay home and avoid crowded places — including the grocery store. 

In the 10 major metro areas the researchers studied, Chang said they found “grocery stores visited by lower income individuals have 59% more people per square feet … and their visitors stayed 17% longer.”

People who are lower income and may be living paycheck to paycheck also tend to go food shopping frequently, according to Daniel Block, a professor of geography at Chicago State University.

“The fact that they just might not have as much money available to them in any particular week might mean that they had to go out more often to buy food,” he said. “So that is going to be a larger amount of exposure.”

Exposure to the virus is something people with money have been able to choose to avoid in a way people with less money have not throughout the pandemic — at grocery stores and elsewhere.

“When we look at who has the privilege to work from home, when we look at who’s forced to travel longer distances to get food, and then maybe even compare that to someone who can afford to have food delivered into their houses, it becomes a little more clear why low-income and BIPOC communities are experiencing higher rates of COVID,” said Stef Funk with the Chicago Food Policy Action Council. 

“Unlike eating out at a restaurant or going to a bar … you can remove that from your life. But folks are forced, in a lot of cases, to get food from a grocery store,” she said.  

Whether or not it’s crowded. 

These days, Christel Orange generally goes to the grocery store a few times a week to shop for herself and for her mom, who’s in her 70s and very worried about COVID. 

Orange is worried about it too, mostly because of her mom. She doesn’t want to risk picking it up somewhere and bringing it home to her. 

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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