Duluth's fee on plastic bags is slated to go into effect on April 1. But on Monday, the Duluth City Council will consider postponing the enforcement of that nickel-per-bag charge for three months.
If passed, a resolution proposed by 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress would push back the mandated fee until July 1.
"This is in direct response to the pandemic," Sipress said.
"I was contacted by a representative of the grocers, who specifically requested a 90-day delay because their employees are under tremendous stress right now, making sure that shelves are stocked, making sure that they're following proper hygiene procedures. And in order to minimize the stress on grocery store workers, it seemed prudent to put off the enforcement by 90 days, because there would need to be some training and some adjustment of the policy," he said.
Patrick Miner of SuperOne Foods/Miner's Inc. said imposing the fee April 1 would create a hardship at a time when many of the grocer's employees are already working overtime to meet customers' needs.
"Right now, our front-line folks are doing their best to take care of our customers by just getting them into our stores, through our stores and out safely. That's where our efforts need to be," he said.
While SuperOne is prepared to comply with the new fee, Miner said: "To add that on top of the challenge our front-line people are already handling right now, it would be incredibly difficult."
The fee is intended to encourage shoppers to opt for reusable fabric bags instead of disposable single-use receptacles.
Sipress said his proposal to temporarily delay the nickel charge should not be construed as him having any misgivings about the policy itself.
"As somebody who is strongly in support of the fee, it just seemed to make sense that in the current circumstances, we want to do everything possible to reduce the stress level on our front-line workers, and I consider grocery store workers right now to be among our front-line workers," he said.
The past week has been incredibly challenging for Super One Foods, as it's experienced traffic similar to that seen during holiday seasons, Miner said.
High demand has caused the store to place buying limits on certain items, like eggs and toilet paper, he said.
"Fortunately, we've been able to keep up, for the most part, and fuel our stores with product and staples,” he said.
Super One is facing challenges with the supply chain, as grocery stores everywhere are experiencing increased demand for products. Shipments that used to show up at 4 a.m., now arrive at 4 p.m., he said.
Starting Tuesday, the store cut back hours and started closing at 9 p.m. until further notice. This gives staff time to do additional cleaning and sanitizing as well as replenish shelves.
The store is also asking people to not shop during the first hour of operation each day, saving that hour for the elderly, immunocompromised, health care workers and first responders, according to its Facebook page.
“We’re proud of all of our folks (for) the extra efforts. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to take care of the community,” Miner said.
Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association, expressed appreciation for the proposed plastic bag delay.
"At this time, to implement something of this magnitude is really really challenging with all the pressures and stresses that are currently going on with the grocery industry, with our workers and even with our customers," Pfuhl said. "Obviously, this is unprecedented for everyone, and we're taking it one day at a time.
"The top priority is to make sure that we are getting nourishment into our communities and that we have an open access for food chains for all of our folks."
Jennifer Christensen, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1189, said her members are dealing with difficult circumstances.
"I think right now, whatever we can do to get people their groceries as efficiently and quickly and with the greatest sanitation and least disturbance is important," she said. "We're certainly supportive of all eco-friendly initiatives, but this is also a matter of retraining and reprogramming and dealing with something new."
Jamie Harvie, an organizer for Bag It Duluth, a local organization that lobbied for the bag fee, said he considers the delay "perfectly reasonable."
"We all want to make sure that this transition is as smooth as possible, and now is not the time to add another layer of complexity," he said.
Pfuhl said it behooves everyone for grocery lines to move smoothly and without unnecessary delays at a time when there are grave concerns about the public health dangers of the coronavirus spreading as a result of public gatherings.
"I think people are eager to get in, get out and get back home into their own environment. So, I think we have to be mindful of what the reality of this unprecedented situation is," Pfuhl said.
Christensen said many of the grocers who employ her members "have gone an extra step" to recognize their employees' efforts. She noted that Super One and Cub have both agreed to provide $2-per-hour bonuses, as well as additional overtime pay.
"It is quite true that people suddenly see the importance of folks of people who are delivering groceries and putting them on the shelves and ringing them out. In a time of crisis, we are there, doing God's work — feeding people," Christensen said.
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