As surging COVID-19 cases collide with Thanksgiving food shopping, city warns of a crackdown on crowds at grocery stores

Grocery shoppers making their Thanksgiving runs may encounter something they haven’t seen since the early days of the pandemic: Lines outside of stores as the city steps up enforcement of capacity limits during the holiday rush.

When announcing a stay-at-home advisory that starts Monday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned businesses will face fines and potentially be shut down if they don’t follow social distancing rules or properly manage crowds.

Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection plans to proactively investigate retail stores to ensure compliance with capacity limits and other COVID-19 regulations, which carry fines up to $10,000 for violations, spokesman Isaac Reichman said.

State and city rules cap essential businesses, such as grocery stores, at 50% occupancy and nonessential retailers, such as clothing stores, at 40%. Neither can have more than 50 people gathered at choke points, like checkout areas.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association, a trade association for retailers in the state, sent a note to members after the mayor’s announcement Thursday, urging them to show they were monitoring customer counts..

“We strongly encourage you to take actionable steps to get capacity under control or the industry will see a crackdown at its most critical time of the year which will include aggressive fines,” the association said in the note, which was obtained by the Tribune.

The heightened enforcement comes as COVID-19 cases in Chicago, the suburbs and elsewhere in the state and nation soar. Illinois reported 15,415 confirmed or probable cases Friday and an average seven-day case positivity rate of 13.2%, up from 3.4% two months ago. As of Wednesday it had more people hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any point during the first spike of infections in the spring.

Meanwhile, grocers expect bigger holiday crowds than usual given that restaurant closures, scuttled travel plans and calls by city officials to cancel family gatherings could result in smaller yet more Thanksgiving dinners cooked at home overall.

Grocery stores, at times epicenters of public life during the pandemic, implemented numerous safety measures to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. As the months dragged on, however, some loosened their most stringent practices to avoid losing customers as people grew weary of the restrictions, said Amanda Lai, manager at Chicago-based retail consultancy McMillanDoolittle.

“Throughout the pandemic there has been COVID fatigue and also a lot of letting our guard down more,” Lai said.

With the threat of a crackdown, grocers are likely to tighten the ship.

“As we anticipate serving larger crowds this holiday season, we will need to enforce customer limits more vigorously when the store is busy,” said Vanessa Dremonas, chief executive officer at Pete’s Fresh Market, an independent chain of 16 grocery stores in Chicago and the suburbs.

Pete’s has maintained the same safety standards since the beginning of the pandemic, though it has scrapped some policies, like one-way aisles, which customers ignored and were too difficult to police, Dremonas said.

Pete’s places an employee at the door to count customers when a store gets

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