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As more workers get sick, major grocery stores consider online-only shopping

Some major grocery chains are considering only offering online shopping and curbside pick-up as more workers get sick and meat processing plants experience shutdowns.
/ Source: TODAY

Some supermarkets are closing to customers and offering only online shopping or curbside pick-up amid growing concerns about worker safety and potential food shortages during the coronavirus pandemic.

Select Whole Foods locations in Baltimore, New York City and San Francisco are only taking online orders, while Kroger is testing a location in Cincinnati that only offers curbside pick-up.

Demand for delivery services like Fresh Direct and Instacart is soaring as more shoppers stay home and more grocery store workers get sick across the country. Amazon has stopped accepting any new online grocery delivery customers, putting them on a waiting list due to demand.

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Large grocery chains like Walmart, Target and Costco have already made changes such as giving health workers and first responders priority to enter stores, offering elderly-only shopping hours and metering the amount of customers allowed in the store at a given time. Officials in one Maryland county have asked residents to voluntarily limit trips for groceries to once every 5 days on a specific schedule based on the first letter of their last names.

Farmers like Florida's Andrew Malone of Funky Chicken Farm in Melbourne have also pivoted to new strategies like selling eggs curbside, Malone told TODAY's Kerry Sanders on Wednesday.

The large grocery chain Publix is also pitching in to help farmers. The company is expected to announce Wednesday that it will be helping farmers and working to feed those in need by buying surplus produce and milk and donating it to Feeding America food banks. Publix is expected to donate 150,000 pounds of produce and 43,500 gallons of milk to Feeding South Florida this week.

Those initiatives come as an increasing number of COVID-19 cases and deaths at some of the country's largest meat processing plants have raised the question of whether there will be potential shortages if operations are halted for an extended time.

Smithfield Farms announced last week that it was closing its meat processing plant in South Dakota until further notice after at least 300 of the facility's 3,700 employees tested positive for the coronavirus. JBS USA announced it was closing its beef plant in Greeley, Colorado, through April 24 after at least two employees died from the coronavirus and dozens more tested positive.

Tyson Foods announced Wednesday that it is temporarily closing a pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa, after 182 cases were reported from the plant out of at least 374 total coronavirus cases in Black Hawk County.

The decision comes after the company drew heavy criticism from county health officials for staying open.

"They are victimizing our community, and my citizens, and that's just absolutely offensive to me," Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson told NBC News.

Tyson Foods told NBC News in a statement that it has been taking steps to protect workers at all of its plants, including installing dividers between workers and relaxing the attendance policy so sick workers can stay at home.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told Fox Business last week that the country's food supply is stable.

"Well, the good news is, I think, we’re safe,'' he said. "We’re sound. The food supply chain is resilient. Are we processing as much as we did? No, but we don’t have the demand from institutional settings like restaurants and other congregate feeding that we had as well, so the demand is down from that side, but the supply is down somewhat but adequate for our people at grocery stores and retail establishments."