MARYLAND — State fire marshals accompanied by Maryland State Police troopers started visiting "big box" stores, such as Walmarts, throughout the state on Monday to perform "compliance checks" to make sure that the businesses' efforts to adhere to Gov. Larry Hogan's emergency COVID-19 social-distancing order meet fire and other safety codes.
Sr. Deputy State Fire Marshal Oliver J. Alkire told the Cecil Whig that those "fire and safety code" checks are now conducted simultaneously with COVID-19 checks that began last week throughout the state, including in Cecil County, to make sure that, for examples, non-essential businesses, such as gyms, are closed and that restaurants are offering only carry-out service.
Alkire also reported that, in part, the catalyst for the "fire and safety code" compliance checks were citizen complaints concerning big box stores, including the two Walmarts in Cecil County, using rows of shopping carts to create corrals and stretching yellow caution tape near the front doors to govern the flow of patrons into the stores.
As it turns out, according to Alkire and a set of safety guidelines posted recently on the agency's Facebook page, those practices are permitted.
Moreover, the Walmart in Elkton and the Walmart near North East were "found to be in compliance" with all codes, after MOSFM agents and MSP troopers conducted inspections at those two stores earlier this week, according to Alkire.
"They're funneling people through one door. This is allowed. There is no requirement for how people are let into a store, only that it (the store) has accessible emergency exits in the event of an emergency, like a gas leak, a car crashing into the building or a fire," Alkire said.
He explained that the lined-up shopping carts and yellow caution tape at the Walmarts that had been inspected here and in other counties, as of Monday afternoon, do not impede patrons from exiting the store - because the makeshift corrals do not choke the thresholds.
The stores also have emergency exits in the back and on the sides of the buildings and, referring to reports of yellow caution tape stretched near emergency exits at some stores, Alkire commented, "A little piece of tape won't stop someone from exiting if there were an emergency."
Some of the citizen complaints to the MOSFM last week included photos of what those residents perceived as possible violations of fire and safety codes at Walmarts in Maryland, including the Walmart near North East, according to Alkire.
"I said, 'We need to get ahead of this' and educate the public," Alkire said.
That led to the MOSFM posting a notice Monday morning on its website and sending the contents of that message in emails to the media.
"Many local businesses have recently taken steps to limit the number of customers in their stores in an effort to comply with social distancing requirements. Big box stores and your local corner stores, in many cases, have started to restrict the number of entrances into their establishments. This effort allows them to maintain an accurate count of customers entering and exiting the business, ensuring everyone's safety and ability to social distance," the notice begins.
And then the notice acknowledges that the practice has "generated statewide concerns from citizens and patrons of the businesses to our office over fears of fire code violations," before explaining the applicable rule.
"The State Fire Prevention Code does not require a minimum number of entrances into any mercantile store. Stores are permitted to restrict entrances to a smaller number than normal. However, it is essential that all required interior emergency exits are clear of any obstructions and available in the event of an emergency. These exits are permitted to be marked as 'for use in an emergency only' with signage or employees posted at the exits," the notice continues.
It reads near the end, "Obstructions such as carts, shelving, temporary walls, or other items would not be permitted by the State Fire Prevention Code and (would be) required to be removed immediately."
Alkire emphasized that the key word is "obstruction" and that the placement of shopping carts, temporary walls and other makeshift barriers and corrals near doors does not constitute an obstruction. The placement of those makeshift barrier in the doorways, or thresholds, would constitute an obstruction, however, he noted.
Referring to the Walmarts in Maryland that already had been checked, Alkire reported that managers and employees at those places were "doing an extremely good job" at systematically allowing shoppers to safely enter the stores, while ensuring that the number of customers shopping inside the building was low enough to easily maintain social distancing of six feet between each person.
"They used writing tablets to keep records. They were keeping track of how many (patrons) went out the store and how many they (then) let inside the store for safe social distancing," Alkire outlined. Customers still had access to exits and emergency exits, he further reported.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Alkire reported that MOSFM agents and MSP troopers had conducted compliance checks at approximately 10 big box stores in Cecil, Harford and Carroll counties and that all were found to be in compliance with "fire and safety" codes.
(In addition to the two Walmarts in Cecil County, the list of completed compliance checks since Monday includes the Best Buy in Bel Air, which now offers only "curbside service," and the Target, also in Bel Air, where it was "business as usual," according to Alkire. Target sells groceries, which is deemed "essential" under the emergency gubernatorial order.)
During the "fire and safety code" compliance checks, MOSFM agents and MSP troopers are handing out E.S.C.A.P.E Plan fliers to store owners and managers, he said. Those handouts provide tips on how businesses can remain compliant with the fire code while keeping their employees and customers safe, Alkire added.
E.S.C.A.P.E is an acronym, with the "E" representing "Exits" and cautioning that "all exits are unlocked & not blocked." The "S" stands for "Storage" and orders that "all storage areas are clean, orderly and not excessive." The "C" relates to "Capacity" and directs, "Your space does not exceed posted limit." The "A" is for "Aisles" and orders that "all aisles are free & clear at all times." The "P" stands for "Protection," which means "fire alarms and fire suppression systems are in proper working order," and the last "E" represents "Emergency Lighting" and calls for "area clear & in working order."
The notice posted Monday on the MOSFM website ends with, "State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci encourages all mercantile operators and patrons to promote and use current guidelines on essential travel and social distancing. In the course of this public health emergency, existing fire safety protection requirements should continue to be maintained."