by Cynthia Weifenbach, contributing writer
In an effort to encourage shoppers to wear a mask in grocery stores during the COVID-19 pandemic, Montana is considering a 3 to 5 percent discount off the total bill at checkout for patrons with a mask on.
“We looked at different things to do to get people to wear masks in grocery stores especially,” said McKee Anderson, president of the Montana Food Distributors Association. “One of the things we are looking at to do with the discount is we are making it an incentive for consumers to wear a mask versus a demand. That is being considered, and I expect it to come into play.”
No other major legislative issues are on the table at present, according to Anderson, who credited Gov. Steve Bullock’s leadership during the state’s response to the health crisis. However, the MFDA is pursuing a measure to address issues with date labels for fresh juice and milk.
“We probably are not going to win the milk issue,” Anderson said. “We will look more to the fresh juice issue, but it is still too early to tell. It is not fully drafted or thought out at this point. This will be a fall issue.”
Anderson said Montana’s agriculture economy has to date weathered the coronavirus impact well, but that likely will change in the fall due to escalating trade war tensions between the U.S. and China.
“We are not totally certain what to expect on that,” Anderson said. “No one knows what will happen with small grains and agriculture. We have a lot of cows—more cows than people in the state—and that industry will be affected badly with what is going on.
“We will know more about that when the crops are sold in the fall. The economy is tough to judge right now, [but] our unemployment is not nearly what it is in other parts of the country.”
Returning to grocer news, Anderson said WinCo opened its first store in Helena in 2019. The Boise, Idaho-based company plans six stores for the state, though the pandemic has delayed a timeline for the openings.
“WinCo is a very solid competitor and is working diligently on opening one in Missoula, which will probably be next,” he said. “Then we’ll have Boseman. And I have heard that they are considering Butte.
“There is limited competition in Butte. They are looking at it as an opportunity, and I believe it probably could be. Whether they go through with this or not, I don’t know. They don’t tell me everything but that’s the direction they are headed now.
WinCo is a privately held, majority employee-owned supermarket chain that also has stores in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington. It previously operated stores as Waremart Food Centers and Cub Foods.
WinCo and other grocers across the state enacted a variety of enhanced safety and cleaning measures to protect workers and customers. While business has been up throughout the industry, other aspects of the state’s economy haven’t been as fortunate.
Anderson noted that a majority of Montana’s COVID-19 cases were in Gallatin County, which includes Bozeman and part of Yellowstone National Park, and have been linked to tourism.
“Tourism is a $14 billion industry in the state,” he said. “One thing that COVID-19 is really killing is the tourist situation. We had a quarantine issue to deal with regarding tourists up until just recently.
“The tourist situation is down pretty tough. The fishing aspects of everything are down. This badly affects hotels, motels, restaurants and other businesses. They have been dramatically affected. The rental car business is badly off.”