Coronavirus outbreak at Safeway distribution center: One worker dead, 51 infected

A Safeway store in Menlo Park.
(Paul Sakuma / Associated Press)

One worker at a Central Valley Safeway distribution center has died of complications related to the coronavirus, and 51 others have been infected, officials said this week.

Andrew Whelan — a spokesman for Albertsons Cos., which owns Safeway — said 3% of the roughly 1,700 workers at the Tracy facility in San Joaquin County had tested positive for the virus, and additional health and safety measures are now in place.

The center provides groceries to about 300 stores throughout Northern California, Nevada and Hawaii.

“We continue to reinforce with all associates the importance of social distancing as the most effective tool we have to combat the spread of COVID-19,” Whelan said in a statement Friday. “We have also closed all common areas in addition to encouraging associates to take lunches and breaks by themselves.”

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Teamsters Local 439, which represents workers at the Safeway facility, said the worker who died was a longtime employee named Pedro Zuniga.

Jose Valencia, Zuniga’s son, told the Modesto Bee that his father lived in Turlock and was 52 years old.

He said Zuniga was a devout Catholic and passionate soccer fan who also loved to cook.

“I hope people take this seriously,” Valencia told the newspaper. “I was one of those that, you know, [thought] it doesn’t happen. It just happened to other people. And it happened to our family.”

Zuniga’s family has set up an online fundraising page to help cover funeral expenses. As of Friday morning, it had raised more than $26,000 — nearly doubling the $15,000 goal.

“Our hearts are heavy, and our thoughts are with that associate’s family,” Whelan said. “This is difficult for the entire Safeway team.”

In our effort to cover this pandemic as thoroughly as possible, we’d like to hear from the loved ones of people who have died from the coronavirus.

At the Safeway facility, the first positive test for the virus came two or three weeks ago, said Rome Aloise, the Teamsters West Region International vice president.

“People work in close quarters in these warehouses, and we’re not sure at the beginning people were taking the proper precautions,” he said. “We are sure they didn’t have the proper PPE for everybody,” he added, referring to personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.

When the pandemic began, Safeway was first grocery chain offering wipes and hand sanitizer to workers, Aloise said.

Whelan said enhanced health measures were now in place at the distribution center, including thermal temperature readings and a health screening before anyone enters the building.

Masks are also to be worn by all associates, he said. The facility also has adjusted lunch and break times to maintain social distancing, placed distancing signs and markers near time clocks, removed some break-room furniture, installed additional hand sanitizer stations, and implemented an enhanced cleaning and disinfection schedule.

Whelan noted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had said there was no evidence to suggest that food produced in the U.S. could transmit COVID-19 and that, currently, “there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”

“We deeply appreciate all that our associates are doing during this unprecedented time, and will continue to do all we can to ensure their health and safety while also providing essential services to the community,” Whelan said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom mentioned the outbreak Thursday during a news conference where he also announced he had signed an executive order affecting companies in the food sector. The order requires those that employ 500 or more people to provide two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave for full-time workers who contract COVID-19 or are exposed to the virus and need to isolate themselves.

Food sector companies in California that employ 500 or more workers will be required to offer two weeks of additional paid sick leave to workers during the coronavirus crisis under an executive order signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“We have an example in San Joaquin Valley right now at a very large food distribution center where we have 51 positives, one individual has passed away, in a facility that has over 1,700 workers,” he said. “It just reinforces the anxiety people have that may not have basic care, basic sick leave. So this is supplemental, it does not negate any existing benefits that are afforded.”

There have been 369 confirmed coronavirus infections and 17 deaths in San Joaquin County since the pandemic began, according to health officials. In Stanislaus County — where Turlock is located — health officials have announced 187 COVID-19 cases and four deaths.

Times staff writer Taryn Luna and the Associated Press contributed to this report.