The chain JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts has kept many of its stores open during the coronavirus pandemic. And it turns out, keeping its doors open has apparently led to at least one customer visiting the store while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test, putting workers and other shoppers at risk.
On Wednesday, one JoAnn employee overheard a shopper discussing her test results over the phone with a doctor. The customer had been browsing the store for more than an hour, touching fabrics and other materials. The overheard exchange set off a panic among the JoAnn staff, who worried they may have been exposed to the virus and that the store may have been contaminated.
The next day, after a deep cleaning, the store opened its doors again.
JoAnn Fabrics argues that it is “essential” because its products are being used to sew masks and gowns amid a shortage. At least three dozen JoAnn workers around the country have contacted HuffPost this week to say some stores are dangerously busy, many have run out of mask materials, and they are afraid to be working right now. They believe the company is endangering employees and customers by remaining open to make more sales.
An employee from the store told HuffPost, “We need help. We’re terrified.”
Below are portions of a group exchange that ensued that night between the store manager and employees, before a crew was brought in to sanitize the store. HuffPost has redacted workers’ names and the store location to protect workers’ jobs.
The back-and-forth reflects the fear and stress many workers across the country are experiencing during the pandemic, providing a service they do not believe is essential, and working only because they feel they cannot afford not to.
Extraneous texts have been edited out.
Manager: Effective immediately, our store is closed. We had a customer come in tonight potentially with the virus. We’ll be bringing in a hazardous cleaning crew to sanitize the store. I don’t know when that will be or how long the doors will remain closed. Everyone will be paid for their time, so don’t worry about that. I also don’t know what operations will look like on the other side of this. I will get you the information as quickly as it comes in.
Worker 1: R u not doing the truck tomorrow [editor’s note: the store was scheduled to receive a truck full of product]
Manager: No, no one is allowed in the building until it’s cleaned. So, please just stay home. Any questions, please funnel through here. I’ll do my best to keep everyone up to date.
Worker 2: Also, do we know approximately when they came in & how many of us that worked today, may be more exposed? Just curiosity.
Worker 3: How did you find out?
Manager: It sounds like this person was in the store this evening around 6 pm while on her cell phone with her doctor. It’s unbelievably appalling behavior
Worker 4: So the only ones of us who would’ve come in contact with [the customer] were myself, [a second worker] (as far as I know she was the closest to him and I) [a third worker] [a fourth worker] [a fifth worker] and [a sixth worker]
Manager: We may have to come up with a creative solution for our warehouse truck… may look like we unload it in the parking lot somehow, perhaps at another store? I don’t know yet guys. I’ll keep you posted!
Worker 2: Will the people affected, be seen by a dr?
Worker 5: But if you unload it in the parking lot where are you gonna put it unless they get a container?
Manager: probably a container
Worker 3: The customer wouldn’t have been in the store room, can you get in the back door?
Worker 5: Was anyone called cuz if you think you have the virus they tell you to self quarantine if not you can be in trouble. She put many people at risk.
Manager: [on the question of whether employees should see a doctor] i don’t know yet; awaiting HR at the moment.
Worker 2: Please let us know, they may need to be seen.
We had a customer come in tonight potentially with the virus.
Worker 5: If they sanitize how is it done with all the fabric and yarn and all? Do we need to dispose of the merchandise or does the sanitizing take care of that
Worker 2: Super good question…. Was she asked to leave or how did that all go down?
Manager: I’m assuming we’re going to be shuttered for a couple days guys
Worker 5: Well we have never been through any of this. I would assume with the virus get rid of it [the merchandise]
Worker 6: No one really knew until [the customer] checked out I think
Worker 5: So she was all through the store
Worker 6: I heard it can only stay alive on objects for a few hours… Yeah she was in the store for hours I guess
Worker 2: I think that depends on the surfaces. Hard, is about 72 hours, I think I saw.
Worker 6: I don’t really know about any of that lol time to do some googling.
Worker 3: Yeah I read that it doesn’t last on porous objects
Manager: Like I said, I will get more info to u as it comes in. I know we have tons of questions, worries and fears. I’m going to let the experts tell us what protocol is before I speculate. Try to relax until we have more info and direction.
Worker 2: Sorry, [manager]. I’m so sorry you’re having to deal with this.
Manager: Pretty sure this is heavy duty stuff they’re using. [Redacted] hinted that the store may smell pretty bad for a couple days after the sanitation…. Don’t be sorry, guys, just try to find some normalcy; it’ll help with the worry. I’m here for whatever you guys need.
Worker 3: Why would you go wander around a store while you’re waiting to hear from your Dr?
Worker 5: I guess we will completely stop worrying when we hear from you but I doubt it.
Manager: Hazmat is on site right now. It’s a 5 hour process to complete. Sounds like it’s aerosol based, probably won’t smell nice. But we go for a normal opening at 9 am. I’ll have more info on exposure soon.
Worker 2: Is this for real? This wasn’t enough for corporate to realize we aren’t safe. What about the people who were in contact with this person?
Manager: All team members who were there tonight are to stay home, instructions to follow.
A call to the store Friday morning confirmed that it was open for business.
A worker employed at the store, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said any benefits of the makeshift masks being sewn for health care workers by JoAnn customers would be outweighed by the dangers posed by keeping the stores open to foot traffic. The customer base tends to skew old, and many customers are simply shopping for craft projects, the worker noted.
“The bottom line is we need to shut down,” the worker said. “We have elderly employees who are continuing to work because they can’t take the time off because they can’t afford to.” The worker added that the store manager “has been amazing” during the pandemic, supporting employees at a time when corporate decisions have put the workforce under intense stress.
“I don’t know what to do,” the worker said.
In an email, a JoAnn spokesperson said this particular store followed the correct steps when learning a shopper may have been infected: “We have a protocol in place that does require a store to close and bring in a deep clean maintenance parter to fully sanitize the store in any case where anyone in our store may have been diagnosed, is suspected or is awaiting results from COVID-19 testing.”
The spokesperson said some JoAnn stores were remaining open “to supply critical materials to serve America’s health care systems, small businesses and volunteers who are giving to charity.” The company has moved exclusively to curbside pickup in some stores but not all of them.
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