Stores offer 'senior hours' shopping amid coronavirus outbreak — but how exactly does it work?

Public health officials have repeatedly stressed that older Americans are most at risk of developing more severe complications of the coronavirus. Research backs that up. One study of coronavirus data found that 31 percent of cases, 45 percent of hospitalizations, 53 percent of ICU admissions and 80 percent of deaths linked with COVID-19 were in people aged 65 and up.

Because of that, there has been a lot of talk about social distancing and doing your best to avoid getting sick in order to protect the older people in your life, like your parents and grandparents.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that older adults and other at-risk groups stay home, if possible, and stay more than six feet away from people who may be sick.

It makes sense in theory. But older Americans still need to get out sometimes to stock up on essentials, like groceries. Several retailers have stepped in to help. Major grocery store chains like Giant, Safeway, Kroger and Whole Foods are offering “senior hours” during the coronavirus crisis, where older Americans can shop without worrying about mingling with their younger counterparts. Retailers like Dollar General, Target and Walmart have also added senior hours to their day.

How exactly does “senior hours” shopping work?

Every store approaches the concept a little differently. Target, for example, announced in a press release on March 17 that it is reserving the first hour of shopping each Wednesday for “vulnerable guests,” including elderly shoppers and those with underlying health concerns.

Giant grocery stores, on the other hand, offer this reserved hour of shopping each day to vulnerable customers. So does Dollar General. However, their first hour is just for senior shoppers.

There’s no one policing who comes through the door, Rob Willey, manager of a Giant in Rehoboth Beach, Del., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We can’t technically card people and can’t really enforce it,” he says. “We’re relying on people to be honest.”

His store offers senior hours from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. and, so far, Willey says, it’s gone well. “We’ve had a ton of people come in,” he says. “All of the customers that came in were thanking us and saying that they felt a lot more comfortable knowing they wouldn’t be exposed.” Willey says that Giant deliberately holds their senior hours first thing in the morning, so that vulnerable populations can shop in a newly cleaned store.

Annette Serna, manager of a Dollar General in Eutawville, S.C., tells Yahoo Lifestyle that her store is also offering senior hours as soon as doors open, specifically from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. “Everything is going fine,” she says. “Although, honestly, no one said anything to us about whether they liked it or not. They just came in, got their stuff and left.”

Infection disease physician Richard Watkins recommends that before seniors shop, they should wipe off the shopping carts hand rail with a disinfecting wipe. (Photo: Getty Creative)
Infection disease physician Richard Watkins recommends that before seniors shop, they should wipe off the shopping carts hand rail with a disinfecting wipe. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Are senior hours effective?

Senior hours “might reduce the risk [of contracting coronavirus] somewhat, but the best strategy to avoid COVID-19 is social distancing,” Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Ideally, seniors would have someone else shop for them to help keep them safe, he adds.

Senior hours also require stores to do regular deep cleanings in order for them to be effective, Watkins says. “The stores should be strict about cleaning, especially high-touch surfaces, such as the areas in front of the cash registers,” he explains. And, before seniors shop, they should wipe off the shopping carts hand rail with a disinfecting wipe, he says. Afterward, using hand sanitizer, if it’s available, and washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds when they get home is crucial, Watkins recommends.

What do seniors think?

Shirley Oliver, who lives in South Carolina, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that it didn’t seem like a lot of people in her area were taking advantage of senior hours when she did. “I went to the Dollar General on Wednesday during those hours and only a few people were shopping — about five older adults,” she says.

Ken Miller, who lives in Delaware, says that the hours are a nice idea, but he feels safe shopping during other hours. “I’ve seen stores constantly cleaning during the day,” he points out. The very early hours are also a deterrent for Miller: “It makes sense that they’d offer senior hours after a store has been cleaned well, but 6 to 7 a.m.? No thanks.”

The early hours are also keeping Glenda Standeven from taking advantage of the offering. “Unlike perhaps the majority of seniors, I don't 'do' mornings,” she explains. “Having our local drugstore open their doors between 6 to 7 a.m. for the disabled and seniors is a lovely gesture, but for those of us who function during the night-time … that is never going to work for us.” Instead, Standeven says, “learning how to shop online is the best solution all around for any seniors familiar with computers.”

For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.