Workers are to be stationed behind plastic shields and security guards are to be armed with hydrogen peroxide spray bottles at Liquor Marts across the province, after a Winnipeg employee tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
On March 27, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corp. issued a tender for plastic separators for its retail stores. The following day, the employee, who later tested positive, worked their last shift at the Garden City Square Liquor Mart.
The store at Leila Avenue and McPhillips Street was closed for extensive cleaning, as was the Main Street and Pritchard Avenue location. An employee at that store had been in contact with the Garden City worker, MLL said Wednesday night.
Contact tracing was being conducted to determine if employees or customers should self-isolate, the Crown corporation said, and the affected employee was in self-isolation at home.
The liquor retailer has put measures in place to protect customers and employees. Protective shields have been installed at tills, the number of customers allowed in each store is capped, and floor decals in queues remind buyers to maintain their distance.
However, one employee, who spoke with the Free Press Thursday, said safety measures appear to be an afterthought since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Manitoba.
"It feels like they only installed them (protective shields) because they were backed into a corner," said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous.
Despite such efforts, certain risks have proven to be unavoidable, Liquor Mart workers told the Free Press.
At locations with controlled access, a security guard still handles each customer’s identification card and scans it into the data collection system. Guards at controlled access locations wipe down high-contact points with a hydrogen peroxide disinfectant between each customer, but latex gloves are not changed between interactions.
Employees who spoke with the Free Press said they felt especially nervous while working in the past few weeks. Safety interventions have been introduced slowly, they said, and levels of customer interaction that ignore social distancing continue to be high.
"We all feel so overworked and defeated," one employee said. "It just kind of sucks.
"We are starting to see sneeze guards being put up, but then that results in angry customers and being called every name you can imagine for ‘blowing this out of proportion.’"
The details of the Garden City coronavirus case was not disclosed by public health officials, but rather in a statement by MLL and the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union.
Asked to explain, provincial chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said: "If there was a confirmed case, and it was thought to benefit the public to announce that, then it would have been done."
In a statement, MLL said it learned about the employee’s presumptive positive test on April 1, four days after the employee’s last shift. The Crown corporation said it is "reaching out to customers who shopped in-store to ensure they are aware of this developing situation."
The Garden City location has a controlled access and ID card scanner. Controlled accesses were installed earlier this year, as an anti-theft measure; the public was told personal information collected at the door would be held for 24 hours and then deleted.
The Free Press asked MLL for clarity on how it is able to contact customers who shopped at the store while the employee was working, and if it was using personal information collected at the controlled access or transaction records.
Late Thursday, MLL said it was able to contact customers through Air Miles.
"We are working with Air Miles to contact any customer who visited the Garden City Liquor Mart between Wednesday, March 25 and Saturday, March 28. Air Miles is sending (a) message to those customers on our behalf, as Liquor & Lotteries doesn’t have access to identifiable customer data from Air Miles.
"For any other customers who may have visited this location but did not use an Air Miles card with their purchase, we are pushing the same message out on our COVID-19 information pages on MBLL.ca and LiquorMarts.ca, through our social media channels, and using signs posted at the store entrance. The staff at the rest of our Liquor Marts are being given the same messages."
Brenda McPhail, the privacy, technology and surveillance project director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said MLL is being responsible by contacting customers and during the pandemic, it’s not unreasonable for the public to know how tracing is done.
"Situations like this reinforce the need for public accountability in relation to data handling," McPhail said. "If there was ever a time when people need to be able to trust governments are acting in their best interest, it’s during a public health emergency."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
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Updated on Thursday, April 2, 2020 at 7:39 PM CDT: Adds statement from MLL