As senior citizens deal with anxiety about the coronavirus, grocery store chains and other retailers have come up with a way to ease their fears: shopping times reserved exclusively for them.

Publix, Whole Foods, Target, Walmart, The Fresh Market and Dollar General began dedicating early morning shopping times for older customers this week.

The theory is that allowing seniors to shop among smaller crowds could reduce their chances of acquiring the virus and give them first crack at buying hand sanitizer and other products that have been hard to find because of panic shopping.

The idea seems to have worked well in smaller shops but backfired in some larger stores, where big crowds made “social distancing” difficult.

Ernest Hodge, 72, showed up at 8 a.m. sharp Wednesday at a Dollar General store just north of Richmond, wearing a face mask and blue rubber gloves to protect himself. He was able to shop among just a half-dozen other seniors and got most of what he needed, including disinfecting wipes, spray cleaner and bottled water.

Hodge said he was happy when he heard about the special shopping hours because he is trying to limit his exposure to people.

“I get off work, I go home. I don’t come out again unless it’s a must,” he said.

Dollar General is reserving the first hour of shopping every day for seniors at its more than 16,000 stores.

Here’s what other chains are doing:

  • Target has set aside an hour every Wednesday morning for vulnerable shoppers, including the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.
  • Walmart said it will host an hourlong “senior shopping event” every Tuesday for customers 60 and older, one hour before stores open to the general public.
  • Publix grocery chain announced that its stores have set aside 7 to 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as a special shopping hour for customers ages 65 and over. The chain said its pharmacies will also open at 7 a.m. on those days to serve shoppers.
  • The Fresh Market grocery chain also has started seniors-only shopping from 8 to 9 a.m. on weekdays.
  • Whole Foods is allowing customers ages 60 and older to shop at 7 a.m. for one hour before their stores open to the general public.

William Petri, a professor in the University of Virginia’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health, said setting aside dedicated times for seniors to shop makes sense.

Health officials have found that many people who are infected don’t have symptoms right away but are still infectious, Petri said.

“That’s an even better reason to try to isolate those who are most vulnerable, like the elderly, from younger people through dedicated shopping hours,” he said.

Richmond Times-Dispatch staff writer Sean Gorman contributed to this report.

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