By Sarah Krouse 

New Mexico officials are offering grocery stores, retailers and other essential businesses a way to avoid shutdowns when workers become infected with Covid-19: regularly test all employees.

Supermarkets, big-box retailers and hotels that pay for regular testing and contact tracing of their workers will be exempt from two-week shutdowns the state has imposed on stores with infected employees as cases rise. Under the new agreement, companies must foot the bill for the measures, test workers every two weeks and share those plans with New Mexico health officials.

The voluntary agreement offered to essential businesses is the latest attempt by public-health officials and companies to balance workplace safety and mitigate spread of the coronavirus during the pandemic's worst phase to date. The typically busy holiday shopping season opens the day after Thanksgiving.

More businesses, schools and other facilities are using Covid-19 testing as a proactive screening measure rather than a tool to respond when they learn of outbreaks.

New Mexico has implemented a stay-at-home order that shut down nonessential businesses such as gyms and salons through Nov. 30. Grocery stores and other retailers like Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. that derive more than a third of their revenue from food sales remain open while other big-box chains like Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. and department stores can only open for curbside pickups.

Before offering the testing-program agreement Tuesday, the state had also shut down businesses for 14 days after some workers have tested positive and added others to a watch list. Locations that have been shut for two weeks thus far include several Walmart and Albertsons Cos. stores, state records show.

A Walmart spokesman said the company was New Mexico's largest employer and had already entered into an agreement with officials to test all its employees there every two weeks. It has received a draft contract from the state and is reviewing it internally, he added. Albertsons didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

"By incentivizing businesses to participate in a regular surveillance testing program, we are keeping New Mexicans safe, slowing the spread of COVID19, and preventing additional closures of essential businesses," James Kenney, secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department, said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation says the latest New Mexico restrictions "ignore everything we have learned as a country and will intensify the hardships of its citizens," adding that retailers have invested in safety measures and stores "are not a source of rampant community spread." The organization called for policies based on how stores operate, not what items they sell, she added.

New Mexico is one of many states revising workplace safety protocols as the pandemic stretches on and intensifies.

California officials last week passed emergency temporary standards that require companies to have written Covid-19 prevention protocols including offering testing to workers who were exposed to infected people, providing face coverings and crafting outbreak-response plans.

Some medical and testing advisers say mandatory testing of retail workers is likely to add a significant amount of demand for diagnostic testing and is likely to require companies to source a dedicated supply to ensure they can stay open.

"Employers need to be better prepared with testing outside their health plans and we need to be aware of the impact of that on the public health testing infrastructure," said Brock Anderson, executive director at CMO onDemand, which offers temporary corporate medical directors to businesses.

Demand for testing has surged ahead of Thanksgiving as cases rise and people seek tests before traveling or visiting family. Hospitalizations, which have set new records every day for two weeks, hit a fresh high of 85,836 on Nov. 23, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 25, 2020 15:36 ET (20:36 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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