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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A cut out that says "Masks are Mandatory, Darling" is seen at the entrance of Pruett's Market on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020 in Signal Mountain, Tenn.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into its seventh month and the number of new cases declines in Hamilton County, some area grocery stores are adjusting policies aimed at preventing spread of the virus that were put in place at the start of the pandemic.

Publix has discontinued one-way aisles in stores not now under local ordinance requiring the measure, including those in the Chattanooga area.

"We implemented one-way aisles at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to help our customers understand and practice social distancing, and over time it has become widely understood and adopted into our routines," said Nicole Krauss, media relations manager of Publix Super Markets in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. "We will continue to provide friendly social distancing reminders in our stores through signage, floor markers at checkout and other queuing areas, as well as through our public address announcements."

Pruett's Market in Signal Mountain took a step in the opposite direction, with the fairly recent addition of a one-way aisle system to its coronavirus-related safety policies, Marketing Director Elon Teems said.

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Chattanooga area grocery stores shift safety policies

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Local Walmart stores continue to encourage customers to shop aisles in a single direction to reduce contact among shoppers, said Casey Staheli, Walmart senior manager of national public relations.

Walmart also continues to open an hour early on Tuesday for shoppers older than 60.

Pruett's, which previously opened an hour early to seniors, stopped that practice around the time Hamilton County put its mask mandate in place, Teems said, although the mandate wasn't what led to the change in policy.

Since many people had returned to work at that point, the store was less steadily busy during the day, so limiting the early hours to seniors wasn't necessary, Teems said.

Both Walmart and Publix had previously closed earlier to allow employees more time to clean and restock. Publix stores have returned to normal hours, and Chattanooga-area Walmart stores have extended their closing times from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Neither chain gave a specific reason, but as health experts have learned more about the coronavirus and how it spreads, there is more of a focus on respiratory droplets than contaminated surfaces.

"The virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person to person, mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Spread is more likely when people are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).

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"It may be possible that people can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, such as a food package or dining ware that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes. However, this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."

This decreased focus on surfaces may be why Publix employees no longer sanitize carts for customers as they did at the start of the pandemic, although Publix supplies customers with wipes they can use to sanitize their own carts as it did before the pandemic.

Since the virus is still a mystery in many ways, expect to continue to see barriers, masks and floor decals encouraging social distancing for the foreseeable future — but don't be surprised if discrepancies in store policies persist, as well.

(READ MORE: The Brand: Pruett's community grocery store is a family tradition)

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.

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