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The parking lot of the Calhoun Walmart was nearly empty on Saturday afternoon as the store was closed for cleaning after a COVID-19 outbreak at the store.

The Calhoun Walmart reopened on Sunday morning after closing Friday afternoon for a deep cleaning by a store employees and a third party company after the location experienced a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases and related quarantines.

Phillip Keene, director of Global Corporate Affairs — Corporate Communications, said via email that privacy concerns prevent the store from saying how many people have been affected, but a store employee who reached out to the Calhoun Times said there have been at least 25 people who have missed time recently due to the pandemic, including the store manager.

The employee, who provided proof of their employment to the Times, asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal for speaking out. The person contacted the newspaper on Thursday, one day before the store shut down for cleaning, and addressed some of the policies Walmart has in place, and then followed up again after the closure.

“Currently they are allowing us to get over time if we decide we want to work extra. Certain areas of the store are understaffed; the dairy department for example, have you noticed that it is constantly in a state of looking empty or unfilled? I can’t speak for all that work there but I know I am feeling extra stressed,” said the person. “Employees are supposed to go to a temperature check-in before going in to work. They get their temp checked and if it is less than 100 you can go to work. They want you to wear a mask but a lot of employees, and even some management, do not wear them correctly. They wear them under the nose or pull them down to their chin. One of the few managers that actually would get on to associates about incorrectly wearing a mask is currently out because of COVID.”

Keene said the store was closed at 2 p.m. on Thursday and was to remain closed through 7 a.m. Sunday. That time was used to clean and sanitize the building and to allow employees time to restock shelves. He shared the following statement on the matter:

“Everything we’re doing is for the well-being of our associates and customers, and in consideration of guidance by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and health experts. When the store reopens Sunday morning, we will continue conducting associate health screens and temperature checks, and all associates will continue to be provided with facemasks and gloves.

“These protocols are in addition to the extensive measures we’ve put in place during the pandemic to help protect our associates and customers, including installing sneeze guards at registers, customer metering and social distancing measures and enacting an emergency leave policy for associates who are unable or uncomfortable coming to work. Additionally, through the help of our health ambassadors, we will continue requiring customers to wear protective facial coverings while inside the building.

“We will continue working closely with elected and local health officials, adjusting how we serve the community while also keeping the health and safety of our customers and associates in mind.”

One problem, however, is that customers aren’t actually required to wear masks, said the anonymous employee. The tipster noted that when the store first enacted that policy that an employee was stationed at the door to ask customers to put on a mask and offer one if they didn’t have one. However, anyone who claimed they have “health issues” was allowed in without a mask, and eventually Walmart stopped placing an employee at the door altogether.

The store also had other policies in place to limit the number of people in the building and to encourage social distancing, such as one-way aisle markers, but several of those policies have since been abandoned as well.

“For a brief time Walmart limited the amount of people they allowed in the store. I can’t recall the amount they were allowed to let in at one time but, in my opinion, it was still too high. One-way aisle markers and arrows to let customers know which way to go to avoid clogging the aisles went unnoticed and not enforced,” the employee wrote in an email. “This and the fact Walmart was too afraid of confrontation is what led them to allow people in without masks again and eventually do away with the associate outside checking for masks.”

Keene pointed to the company’s COVID-19 emergency leave policy and notes that it allows for employees who feel uncomfortable about working in the store to to stay home. Those absences won’t count against an employee’s attendance record, but an employee would need to use their paid time off if they wished to get paid. The policy does provide for up to two weeks of paid time off if the store requires the employee to quarantine, as well as two weeks pay if an employee has a confirmed case of the virus.

“As the pandemic has spread across the country, the impact to our friends, family and neighbors is being felt in almost all the places we call home, and this includes Calhoun and the surrounding area,” Keene wrote. “The nature of the virus makes it nearly impossible to track a source, which is why – as an essential business – we are taking measures in our stores to help protect our associates and customers, including proactive measures like a temporary closure.”

The employee said there is plenty of blame to go around for the need to close the store for an extended period of time. The store workers could do more, but so could customers, the person said.

“I have seen several people on Facebook complaining about the store closure and blaming the associates for not wearing their masks correctly. I would just like to mention that while I think Walmart handled this situation very poorly and they should take responsibility for it, the customers should also admit they are part of the cause as well,” the employee said early Sunday morning. “For every worker who had their mask under their nose for a quick breather while having to work for eight hours plus, there were a handful of customers not wearing one at all. They come in with their entire family. They cough and sneeze without covering them. They act as though they never heard of social distancing and just gather around in groups and chat away, as if there is no virus. If the customers don’t want to wear a mask because it ‘infringes on their freedom’ or they have ‘medical issues’ then they need to be respectful to the men and women who work here and just stay the hell away.”

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