Physical distancing and cannabis delivery go great together. (Atlas/AdobeStock)
America’s 243,000-strong legal cannabis workers are rapidly adopting local, state, federal and international health guidelines to keep working as essential businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regulators have de facto deputized marijuana dispensary operators coast to coast as frontline health care workers—doling out pain and anxiety medication, for starters.
Dispensary owners must go beyond basic rules like latex gloves, to embrace the spirit of the all-out fight against SARS-CoV-2. Dispensaries have switched to serving customers outside the store, and limiting operations inside. Some are using no-contact infrared thermometers to check staff and customers for fever before store entry.
Adaptability is a core trait in cannabis, said Sabrina Fendrick, Chief Public Affairs Officer at the Berkeley Patients Group cannabis store in Berkeley, CA.
“Given everything we’ve gone through in the last two years—you have to be really adaptable to stay in this industry,” she said.
Here’s how retail cannabis stores are keeping their customers and employees safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marijuana dispensaries have their roots as quasi-community health centers, and they’ve started to think like hospitals to safely vend cannabis.
They’re up against extremely infectious SARS-CoV-2, which is invisible to the naked eye. Contagious people may have no symptoms, and the newly infected can become virus transmitters in as little as 24 hours.
Carriers exhale the virus in their breath, coughs, and sneezes. Contaminated water droplets spread to whatever carriers touch, and wherever they go.
In room air, droplets can float around for up to 3.5 hours, and drift up to 12 feet. Outside is better—droplets fall to the ground in about a 6-foot radius.
On surfaces, COVID-19 can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard packaging and money, and up to three days on hard metal or plastic—like door handles, and light switches. Victims touch those surfaces and then their face. The first symptoms of COVID-19 occur about five days after infection. One in five recorded cases is considered “severe”—meaning you need medical help.
But don’t despair. Coronavirus is easily killed with soap and water, or bleach dilutions, 50% isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, UV-C light, or heat.
Also, personal protective equipment, and stringently followed rules for droplet and aerosol control can halt the virus’ spread.
Earlier this week, two Massachusetts dispensary workers tested positive for COVID-19, illustrating the stakes of getting sanitary conditions right.
Keep customers out of stores
The best way to avoid COVID-19 is not to be in the vicinity of the infected. So efforts to keep customers out of stores are being widely adopted.
To keep people out of stores, cannabis sellers are emphasizing online ordering, coupled with curbside pickup, or delivery. That way, the customer never sets foot in the store, and keeps their droplets to themselves.
“Any way you can minimize contact with the person is preferred,” said Fendrick.
Front-door service / Drive-thru
Some stores have drive-thru licenses, which is another form of curbside pickup.
And some stores are using emergency rules to perform “front-door service,” where the cannabis hand-off takes place at the front door. That’s like curbside pickup for folks without cars.
Less optimal: In-store, with distancing
Less than ideal is letting customers in the store. Sometimes that has to happen. Not everyone has a car, or regulations might require it.
Many counties and states have ordered the halving of store occupancy limits.
Customers must line up out front, and stand on tape marks on the ground to keep their 6-foot distance.
Stores are also reducing hours, closing smoking or dab lounges, and shutting down smelling stations and sniff jars for the time being.
At Mission Illinois, long lines outside spurred the Chicago store to switch to hourly reservation windows. Customers go online, order, and reserve an hourly pickup window. The store sends texts when it’s time to come on down.
The reservation system serves just as many customers, but with far less people gathering outside, said Kris Krane, Mission Illinois’ operator.
“The feedback from customers has been terrific,” he said. “We’ve gotten no pushback from any customers.”
Behind the counter—squeaky clean commerce
All essential business owners must innovate ways to safely conduct commerce in a climate of COVID-19. Everyone’s safety depends on it.
Most guidelines call for paring back the business to essentials and limiting staff by half, and encouraging employees to work from home as much as possible. Look at Colorado’s March 30 regulations, for example.
Of course, keep sick workers home. Offer them paid sick leave.
For the workers that have to come to work, keep them six feet apart, and increase ventilation, so no one is breathing each other’s air.
“No staffers shaking hands, hugging or fist bumps right now. If you do, follow hand cleaning procedures,” said Debby Goldsberry, operator of the Magnolia dispensary in Oakland, CA.
Use hospital droplet protocols
Businesses are learning to assume that some workers or customers may be asymptomatic carriers, so even if sick folks stay home, they’re still using rules to prevent infection via droplets. Of course, cover coughs and sneezes, wash hands frequently and don’t touch your face. But also use latex gloves, constantly wiping down and then disinfecting surfaces.
All Mission Illinois staff can wear gloves, said Krane.
They’re wiping down and disinfecting surfaces on the hour and each night.
Thirty seconds of 50% isopropyl alcohol kills SARS-CoV-2; ditto for bleach dilutions of 5 tablespoons bleach to 1 gallon of water.
Store operators prevent mixing by limiting areas where some folks work, so for example, inventory staff do not mix with retail cashiers.
Stores would use more gloves and hand sanitizer, but they’ve become hard to find, said Krane. Mission Illinois sources latex gloves at auto parts stores. The brand has a Washington cultivation facility producing hand sanitizer for its national affiliates.
Stop aerosols, too
COVID-19 may not technically be “airborne,” but it can be transmitted short distances through the air for hours at a time.
To really boost safety, stores are trying to adapt hospital aerosol protocols, too.
That means face masks. Yes, healthcare workers need the best stuff—N95s. But the CDC is telling nurses anything might be better than nothing—even a bandana or layers of cotton t-shirt material.
Fighting aerosols also means protecting your eyes, which means some type of glasses or goggles to prevent aerosol-to-eye transmission.
San Francisco store The Green Cross has also deployed more than a dozen new air purifiers in their stores, in addition to having masks for employees, and HVAC ultra-violet lights to prevent the recirculation of germs.
Practice safe PPE use
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is only as good as how you use it. One new danger is people touching their face to adjust their mask and/or goggles.
Wash your hands before and after putting on and taking off a mask. Assume the outside of mask and goggles will get contaminated. Clean and disinfect. Wash hands again afterward.
Latex gloves must be taken off correctly and discarded, or they don’t work.
“The gloves are a bit of a false sense of security,” said Krane. “Unless you change your gloves regularly, washing your hands regularly has the same impact.”
What about cash?
The coronavirus can live for up to a day on paper money and longer on coins, and the legal cannabis industry is generally locked out of the banking system, and forced to be cash-only. That means avoiding hard currency or disinfecting it.
“That’s one of my bigger concerns,” said Krane.
If you can, have customers use online ordering with credit cards, or cashless payment systems like CanPay and Hypur, said Krane. The main issue there is customer adoption.
“We’ve had CanPay for a while, but there wasn’t a lot of adoption prior to this. It’s just not familiar to them yet,” Krane said.
Limit handling of cash as much as possible and assume it’s contaminated.
Magnolia Wellness in Oakland is using a physical tray to transfer money, instead of their hands. Exact change is preferred. Ask customers to stick the cash in a plastic bag or envelope so there’s even less contact. Designate a cash officer to intake and handle cash under droplet rules.
Dealing with vendors
Stores have to restock, and during wholesale resupply they’re keeping their distance from each vendor.
Big boxes of wholesale goods get wiped down at Mission Illinois. Individual cannabis boxes are less of a concern, Krane said. “Those, by and large, have been sitting on a shelf for a while in a box.”
The Green Cross in San Francisco performs its own wholesale packaging of flower, so all buds are placed in ultraviolet light boxes before packaging occurs.
Beyond basic guidance
We’re also seeing cannabis operators embrace not only the letter of the regulations but the spirit as well.
Store managers can post guidelines, and posters, and appoint a compliance officer to handle awkward conversations with someone who needs to go wash their hands.
Contactless thermometers are being trialed at Mission Illinois. You run a fever, you can’t come into the store. Up next will likely be fever-tracking apps for staff. You log your temperature, or you can’t clock in.
Managers are grouping workers into teams to prevent mixing. If one member of a cohort falls ill, stores can keep them home and monitor the rest of the cohort for a few days.
As much as 50-70% of the US may catch the coronavirus this year, some experts estimate. Stores have to plan for sick days by cross-training team members. CannaCraft president Dennis Hunter said his company has signed mutual aid agreements with other distribution companies who might normally be competitors. If one team falls ill, the other company can still distribute their goods.
To improve morale, many store owners have begun issuing bonuses to front line workers, like a form of hazard pay.
Mission Illinois plans for even bigger bonuses for employees who come to the workplace the day after a sick worker. The multi-state brand has yet to have a single case of COVID-19, but plans to shut down and disinfect any worksites where a staffer tests positive, and pay to test exposed peers.
At The Green Cross dispensary in San Francisco, CA, owner Kevin Reed is reminding staff to eat right and get enough exercise and sleep. Vitamins are complimentary for staff at The Green Cross.
The future of clean cannabis commerce
Many of these rules and habits are likely to persist after the immediate threat is gone.
For example, strict sanitation protocols benefit immune-compromised customers, like cancer patients. Medical dispensaries already see a lot of those folks, pandemic or otherwise.
Epidemiologists have seen evidence that regular cold and flu cases have dropped during physical distancing this year. That lowers the cost of sick days for businesses.
“The handshake might not really come back,” said Krane. “Do we really need to touch each other’s hands when we meet each other?”
Even bigger, legal cannabis stores have a historic chance to prove their worth not only in a crisis but beyond.
“For those of us in the cannabis industry—we’re learning a lot of lessons here, and I think there are some opportunities,” Krane said. “If we’re able to prove we’re responsible operators through this, some of the regulations [like allowing curbside pickup or delivery] may stay in place.”