Sanitation, Signage & Putting Employees First: Tribal C-Store Response to COVID-19

One of the Chehalis Tribe’s three End of the Trail c-stores. (Photo Courtesy Chehalis Tribal Enterprises)

The Tribal Convenience Store Association and Tribal C-Store Operators Weigh in on Remaining Open, While Taking Precautionary Measures Against COVID-19 

As many Tribal Nations have called a state of emergency within their communities, a tension has arisen between two critical objectives: protecting Tribal members and supplying them with essential products and services.  

“We’re trying to push that curve down, so the Coronavirus doesn’t spread,” Chris Richardson, Managing Director of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises, the operator of three Tribal c-stores, told Native Business. “And we do that by keeping distance.”

“But, we keep our convenience stores open, because, well, it’s in the name, ‘convenience,’ and Tribal members are not locked down; they need gas and food. And for the most part, we live in a rural area,” added Richardson, a member of the Chehalis Indian Tribe, located in southwest Washington State.

In brief: most Tribal governments observe Tribal c-stores as providing an essential function. So while many reservation-businesses have temporarily closed their doors, c-stores remain open — and busy. Tribal c-store operators and managers are responding to the COVID-19 outbreak with vigilance to prevent the virus’ spread, and with great compassion and care for employees. 

Richardson also underscored that, after the gaming industry, c-stores are the second greatest revenue driver for many Tribal governments. 

Chehalis Tribal Enterprises operates three large, high-volume convenience stores called End of the Trail, each selling branded gasoline (two Shells and one Chevron), as well as food and other commodities. 

Richardson additionally serves as Chairman of an interTribal trade association, the Tribal Convenience Store Association (TCSA), which counts over 40 members representing over 120-plus Tribally owned convenience store/gas stations. He shared his perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on the Chehalis Tribe’s three c-store operations, and he offered Native Business his broad insights into how Tribal c-stores nationwide are tackling these unprecedented challenges. 

Tribal c-stores are taking extra precaution to sanitize all surfaces. (Photo Courtesy Chehalis Tribal Enterprises)

Implementing & Heeding Protocol 

Sanitation: By and large, the approach of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises’ three End of the Trail c-stores looks similar to that of major chains, like 7-11 and Circle K. They have appointed a designated sanitizer each shift, and implemented two-hour deep cleans daily. 

Leadership at Cowlitz Crossing Fuel and Convenience Store in southwest Washington has also stepped up in this challenging time. 

“Our operations team has increased routine cleaning procedures to ensure high-touch surfaces are sanitized multiple times per day,” leadership at Cowlitz Crossing Fuel and Convenience Store told Native Business by email. “Additionally, we added a full-service option at our gas pumps. We are handing out free personal-sized hand sanitizers to our customers and providing sanitizing stations at every fueling island. The team has added distancing lines on the floor to remind guests about the 6-feet social distancing guideline.” 

“Team members are wearing gloves and changing them after each register transaction that requires handling a personal item, such as customer identification or loyalty cards. Many of our customers have enthusiastically approved the improvements we have implemented at the store and expressed confidence in shopping at Cowlitz Crossing,” stated Cowlitz Tribal leaders, adding, “Our construction and public utilities customers have commented that they are very happy that we are open and are thankful we are open 24/7 to serve them.” 

Signage: “As much as we’ve heard ‘keep your social distance,’ people still piling up at the register,” Richardson told Native business. “I’m getting my professional signage installed [Wednesday] — banners on top of the pumps, signage on our doors to cover your cough and keep your distance, and on the floor to keep people aware: don’t linger too long in the store.”

Signage also serves to promote sales. Cowlitz Crossing Fuel and Convenience Store has partnered with ilani’s marketing team on outdoor advertising on its digital billboard to showcase their competitive gas prices, delicious food options and other specials in the store. 

The Chehalis Tribe’s Lucky Eagle Casino & Hotel advertises gas prices at its Tribal c-stores. (Photo Courtesy Chehalis Tribal Enterprises)

Employees First: The Chehalis Indian Tribe’s three c-stores, as well as most Tribal c-stores, according to Richardson, are continuing to pay employees — even if they are unable to work, or if they decline to work at this time due to general fears, compromised immune systems or preexisting conditions, or because they need to care-give to a family member or friend now. 

The difference between Tribally owned and mainstream convenience stores is that Tribally operated c-stores are generally located on reservations, and most employees are Tribal members themselves, Richardson articulated. “We’re not going to fire them or have disciplinary action” for those who can’t work, he said. “Our employees are very important to us. …These are our own communities, so when we make these decisions, we’re literally affecting our own families.”

The Chehalis Indian Tribe has honored employees who are able to work with a $2/hour raise, “and we’re giving them an allowance to eat the readymade foods within the stores — the salads, sandwiches, soups — of $10 a day,” Richardson said, “because we know they are making a sacrifice.” 

Chehalis Tribal Enterprises is doing its due diligence to ensure employees are healthy at work, inquiring, “Do you have a fever? Do you have a cough? Is anyone sick at home?” said Richardson. “We’re taking their temperature. If anyone’s sick, they go home, but they get paid. We’re paying everyone for a couple of weeks,” he clarified. “A lot of Tribes are doing that.” 

“Store managers and staff are our ‘heroes’ serving their own Native American communities,” said Richardson, adding that Tribal members with pre-existing conditions and those more vulnerable to the virus heed a warning: “It’s important to note that our elders and children avoid traveling into more densely populated box stores in town by coming to their local reservation store for fuel, food and supplies.” 

Overall, business has been up for most Tribal c-stores. Given less road traffic, they may soon see a dip in revenues from gas sales, but it hasn’t happened yet. 

Richardson anticipates End of the Trail stores — as well as most Tribal c-stores — will likely remain open, even if hours need to be reduced. Already, one of the End of the Trail c-stores, situated off the Interstate, previously open 24/7, has reduced hours to 6am to 9pm (due to fewer employees and to allow time for deep cleans). That store also boasts food options (currently drive-thru only), including an Arby’s, Burger King and Dutch Brothers’ Coffee. 

Another key benefit of the Tribal c-stores is that they do have stock of items often sold-out at larger stores. Toilet paper and paper towels currently line the shelves at the End of the Trail stores. 

“We’ve gotten a shipment of hand disinfectant that is hard to procure,” Richardson boasted, plus “rice and potatoes — things that, in the big box stores, are hard to find.” 

A pallet of water at an End of the Trail c-store on the Chehalis Reservation (Photo Courtesy Chehalis Tribal Enterprises)