Paper, new or DIY: Bagging groceries in the COVID era

JACKSON — Grocery shoppers in Jackson can still use their own bags. They just have to bag their own groceries if they do.

Otherwise, shoppers can choose paper bags, for a fee, and grocers will do the work for them.

Until recently, Jackson Whole Grocer had required shoppers to bag their own purchases no matter which sacks they used. But the store recently relaxed that policy, in close consultation with the Teton County Health Department, said Lacey Davidson, the store’s director of marketing.

Store clerks “were very excited this week when they could start bagging again,” she said. “They just want to help everyone.”

Jackson Whole Grocer also has a stack of cardboard boxes at the front of the store that customers are welcome to have for free. Store clerks can bag groceries for customers who choose the free boxes.

Smith’s Food and Drug and Albertsons also require customers to bag their own groceries if they bring their own reusable bags. But the stores will do the bagging for people who purchase paper or new reusable bags.

Early on in the global pandemic, some called for an outright ban on reusable bags. But the community has instead settled on a bag-your-own approach.

Last month, the Jackson Town Council briefly considered an emergency ordinance temporarily waiving fees for paper bags. At the April 20 meeting, staff recommended against that option after researching it.

A little over a year ago, the town first banned single-use plastic bags and required businesses to charge 20 cents for paper bags — fee revenue is split between the store and the community’s Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling service.

Town staff reported to the council in April that an emergency ordinance to waive the paper bag fee due to coronavirus concerns wouldn’t be ideal. The Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce “indicated that it could be a hassle for businesses to change point-of-sale systems,” a staff report said.

What’s more, other communities were instead asking customers to bag their own groceries.

Rather than waive fees, staff suggested an education campaign informing the public about where to get new reusable bags, the importance of frequently washing reusable bags and the option of bagging your own groceries.

Bagging covers only one point of contact, Town Attorney Lea Colasuonno told councilors.

“The problem is the proximity to the other person,” she said, “and the contact between the consumer and the grocer, of touching every single item.”

Instead, public education is needed to emphasize wiping down bagging areas between customers and encouraging customers to use hand sanitizer and bag their own groceries, Colasuonno said.

“It’s not about the bags,” she said.

Mayor Pete Muldoon said he was initially in favor of waiving the bag fee but agreed with switching gears to pursue an education campaign to encourage washing bags and good hygiene at grocery stores.

Likewise, Councilor Arne Jorgensen emphasized that customers have a responsibility to embrace behaviors that protect grocery store workers.

At Jackson Whole Grocer, Davidson said customers have been positive and proactive.

“It’s been nothing but compassion and patience from everyone,” she said.