Berkeley Bowl West before opening, July 9, 2020. Photo: Sarah Han
Employees at Berkeley Bowl West and Berkeley Bowl Marketplace have tested positive for COVID-19. Photo: Sarah Han

Several employees at both locations of Berkeley Bowl have tested positive for COVID-19.

The grocery store posted alerts at the entrances at Berkeley Bowl Marketplace (2020 Oregon St., Berkeley) June 29 and at Berkeley Bowl West (920 Heinz Ave., Berkeley) July 1. Both stores have remained open during normal hours, but Berkeley Bowl said diagnosed employees, and others who have had close contact with them, have been quarantined and the store has been deep-cleaned by a third-party cleaning company.

Berkeley Bowl general manager Steve Tsujimoto told Nosh a “small amount” of workers tested positive, but that the market is not disclosing the specific number of affected staff members, or the departments they work in, to protect the privacy of its employees. The grocery store employs more than 600 people at both locations, he said. Diagnosed staffers worked in different departments at the markets, including some that have contact with customers. Many of the positive employees worked the morning shift, and the majority worked at one of the locations, he said.

When the positive test results were known, Tsujimoto said management notified all employees, contacted Berkeley’s health department to ensure it was “solid in following all the guidelines,” and that it conducted contact tracing to identify other individuals who may have had close contact with the affected employees. An undisclosed number of people (again, Tsujimoto cited privacy reasons for not giving an exact figure, but said it was a small number) were identified and are currently in quarantine.

According to Tsujimoto, the market learned of its staffers’ positive status about two weeks ago. He said a few team members had called in sick and had not come into work for over a week before getting tested and receiving positive results for the virus. Through contact tracing and testing of other employees, some who were asymptomatic, a few more positive cases turned up. Those who had close contact with affected employees were asked to quarantine for 14 days. Staffers who were diagnosed with the virus have been asked to stay home until they receive a negative test result. Quarantined staffers have been given paid sick leave, Tsujimoto said, and that as far as he knows, none of the diagnosed employees have become very sick or required hospitalization.

Berkeley Bowl said it has provided free COVID-19 testing for all employees who had close contact with the diagnosed staffers. It recently tested 50 employees on-site and encouraged all of its staff to get tested off-site for free on their own schedule. Tsujimoto said management is working on doing additional on-site testing because it realizes more employees would get tested that way. In the meantime, the store is telling any employee who feels sick to stay at home.

While Berkeley Bowl has not closed since learning about the positive cases, Tsujimoto said the management is working closely with city health officials and using guidance from the Centers from Disease Control Prevention (CDC) to keep the markets safe for its staff and customers. Under these guidelines, the markets are not required to suspend business when positive cases are known.

Although notices from management were posted at the entrances at each market alerting the public of the positive cases, customers may not see or read them. Each sign is typed on a single sheet of official Berkeley Bowl letterhead, but the font is too small to read from a distance, and the notices were placed amongst many others on the doors, making them easy to overlook. And, as shoppers are required to line up six feet apart from each other outside, most will not be able to linger in front of the doors to read the signs.

Berkeley Bowl is a 43-year-old independent, family-run business known worldwide for the quality and variety of its produce and wide selection of groceries. Despite the pandemic, both locations have seen steady business in the past few months, with lines at the doors before the markets even open and queues to get in throughout the day.

The market maintains that it was one of the first essential businesses during the pandemic to instate many of the social distancing practices that are now required. Its protocols include asking customers to keep at least six feet distance between others; limiting the number of people inside the store at once; offering senior shopping hours; requiring employees, customers and vendors to wear face coverings at all times; providing sanitizer gel and gloves for customers at entrances; sanitizing shopping carts and baskets between each use; and placing plexiglass barriers at registers.

Tsujimoto claims the market has been ready and willing to do anything the Berkeley health department suggests, but that health officials have been given the store “two thumbs up” for its current protocols and safety measures. While the market can follow all the guidelines, Tsujimoto said the one thing that is out of its control is what its staffers do outside of work.

Berkeley Bowl is not the first East Bay market to report employees who’ve contracted COVID-19. In May, Cardenas Markets in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood had 12 workers test positive for the virus, and in early June, two Berkeley markets reported affected staff: Whole Foods on Telegraph Avenue and Market Hall Foods on Fourth Street.

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Sarah Han was the editor of Nosh from 2017 to 2021. Previously, she worked as an editor at The Bold Italic, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2020, Sarah won SPJ NorCal's...