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How Can You Safely Grocery Shop in the Time of Coronavirus? Here's What Experts Suggest

04/24/2020 06:00AM | 3322 views


As coronavirus spreads globally, grocery shopping has become one of the most anxiety-producing yet necessary activities for millions of people around the world.

With many governments enforcing shelter-in-place orders in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, heading to the store for food and essential supplies is the only time many people leave their homes. Prepping for the trip can feel overwhelming: Should you wear gloves or a mask? Should you wipe down that tomato? What’s the safest way to pay?

To answer these questions and more, TIME reached out to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other public health experts about what steps you can take to protect yourself and those around you while grocery shopping. Here’s what to know.

Is it better to order groceries online or go to the store?

If you can afford to, it’s best to order food online, experts say. Delivery services dramatically reduce your contact with other people: you pay online, it’s packaged elsewhere and the food is left outside your door.

“I’ve heard there are wait times, but if you can use that option it would definitely be better than going out,” says Dr. Joshua Petrie, an assistant research professor of epidemiology at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.

A spokesperson for the CDC also tells TIME in an email that ordering online can be a good alternative for high-risk people. She adds, “And if you have any symptoms of illness, please stay home to protect your own health, as well as the health of others.”

Dr. Craig Hedberg, a professor in the environmental health sciences division of the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, also cautions in an email that even when ordering groceries online, “[You] are still relying on the health and hygiene habits of the people who assemble your order and deliver it.”

A spokesperson for the CDC told TIME on March 17 that “[currently] there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food or food packaging.” However, Jared Baeten, the vice dean of the School of Public Health and professor of global health, medicine and epidemiology at the University of Washington, says that “for complete risk reduction, you might want to clean off your groceries,” while making sure to not get hazardous chemicals on what you eat.

Regardless, you should always wash your hands before and after handling food. The CDC also recommends you wash your hands again after you unload your groceries, and clean kitchen surfaces like countertops, cabinet handles and light switches.

What are the best ways to practice social distancing at the store?

Many people have no choice but to visit a grocery store in person. Dr. Lauren Sauer, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says your primary concern while shopping should be the risk of contracting the virus from other people, not from food or surfaces in the store. While there’s a chance the virus could be transmitted on a surface, “you’re most likely to get this from another person,” she explains.

So try to maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people, the CDC spokesperson says. Sauer also adds that it’s incumbent for people to “take responsibility” to social distance, as “not everyone is going to be respectful of that six feet.” If you see a crowded aisle, skip it or wait for people to leave. The average grocery cart is three-feet long, so aim to have the length of two carts between you and everyone else, Sauer suggests.

“Avoid racing to get the last of an item on the shelf. Follow guidelines that may be posted at the store. Be patient,” Hedberg writes.

Standing so far apart from people might feel uncomfortable, Dr. Jessica Justman, an associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia University, warns. People in the U.S. tend to have conversations two or three feet apart, she explains, so doubling that can feel alien. Still, it’s necessary right now.

Sauer suggests shopping at a store that’s already enforcing social distancing, such as requiring people to stand six feet apart in line or only allowing a certain number of customers in at once. Many national chains have announcedprecautions they’ll be taking moving forward, and you can also call your local store and ask ahead before you leave the house. “You want to pick a store that’s really paying attention and making it safer for customers to go in,” Justman says.

Sauer also suggests that, when possible, leave your kids and other family members at home. It’s probably safest if only one person in each household does all the shopping, not only because it lowers the household’s exposure but also because it reduces the total number of people in stores, she says. “We don’t really understand how kids transmit the virus,” Sauer adds. “It could be that little kids are sick and we just don’t know, so you want to reduce their interaction more broadly.”

And definitely don’t go to the store if you’re feeling sick, Petrie stresses. Ask someone else to go for you.

What are the best ways to safely touch things in the store?

While you should be most concerned about the other people in the store, the virus can also live on surfaces, says Dr. Christopher Gill, an associate professor of global health at the Boston University School of Public Health. It’s possible someone who is infected could cough and droplets containing the virus could land on a surface that you then touch. A March 17 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus could live for two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to four hours on copper.

So it’s best to be cautious. A spokesperson for the CDC recommends people clean their shopping cart or basket—specifically the handles and other surface areas—either with their own disinfectant wipes or wipes provided by the store. (Many stores have already started providing wipes near the carts.) Hedberg also suggests placing your raw food in a bag “to prevent direct contact with the cart.”

John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, says that once you’ve touched something in the store — say a cereal box or freezer door — you have to “assume your hands are contaminated.” He suggests touching as few things as possible and don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth.

Sauer recommends bringing hand sanitizer to the store if it’s available to you, and using it after every time you come in contact with “high touch surfaces”—like cart handles. Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol is best.

Sauer also recommends using a paper shopping list, rather than your phone, while you’re in the store. You can throw the list away when you’re done, and it doesn’t risk transferring viral particles to your phone. “The less you can touch your personal items in public spaces, the better,” she explains. She also suggests using hand sanitizer the moment you leave the store—especially before you get in the car and touch the steering wheel.

Then, make sure to wash your hands as soon as you can. The CDC spokesperson recommends people wash their hands with soap and water “for at least 20 seconds before and after shopping.”

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Should you wear a mask or gloves to the store?

If you’re sick and have to leave your house—which experts strongly advise against—you should wear a mask to stop the spread of infectious droplets.

But what if you’re not sick? Experts tell TIME there’s not enough data to conclusively say whether wearing a mask in public will protect you from infection. However, data strongly suggests that wearing a mask when you’re sick helps stop the spread of the virus, because it catches viral droplets coming from your mouth or nose.

On April 3, President Donald Trump announced that the CDC had changed its guidelines to recommend that Americans wear non-medical masks when outside their homes. These non-medical masks could be made out of any pieces of fabrics that cover your mouth and nose, like a bandana or pieces of a cut-up T-shirt. Cities like Los Angeles and New York City had already issued similar guidance.

The CDC’s guidelines are voluntary, and come after new scientific evidence suggested that as many as 25% of people infected with coronavirus are asymptomatic, which was not widely known when the outbreak began. Crucially, it does not recommend people wear medical masks, such as N95s, which are in short supply and critical for health care workers.

You still must be vigilant about social distancing while wearing a mask, experts stress, and make sure to not fiddle with the mask while wearing it as that could potentially put contaminated fingers near your face.

Experts also tell TIME they don’t believe gloves are needed when going to the grocery store.

While gloves stop the virus from getting on your skin, they don’t stop you from touching the cart handle then touching your face, which is how you could become infected. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is not touch your face, use hand sanitizer and wash your hands as soon as possible, Gill says.

Petrie also points out that personal protective equipment like gloves and medical masks are much more necessary for health care workers, and “there’s already lots of shortages of those sort of supplies in our hospitals where they’re really needed.”

“I don’t think [gloves or medical masks] would reduce your risk enough to warrant using them,” he says.

Sauer adds that personal protective equipment like gloves can give people “a false sense of security.” You might be less determined to not touch your face or wash your hands. “You [also] have a higher risk of exposing yourself to something if you take the gloves and [medical] mask off wrong,” she adds. Wearing gloves should not replace using hand sanitizer or washing your hands.

How can you pay safely?

You want to minimize your contact with other people as much as possible, experts say. If you can go cashless, go cashless. Something like Apple Pay, where you just tap your iPhone, is a good option because you don’t have to exchange your credit card, Sauer says. While you should try to keep your phone out of your hands as much as possible while shopping, she says using something like Apple Pay is a “trade off” because it’s better to have as little contact with the cashier as possible.

If you don’t have a mobile payment service, Dr. Jonathan Fielding, a professor of health policy and management at the University of California Los Angeles’s School of Public Health, says the next best option is a credit or debit card that’s “wiped clean both before and after use.”

If you have to use cash, the CDC spokesperson recommends you “thoroughly wash your hands after handling [it].”

Sauer also suggests you try to keep as much distance as possible between yourself and the cashier. “It’s less about the surfaces and more about how close in contact you are with the people,” she explains. Cashiers don’t have the freedom to move around like shoppers do, so be mindful to make space for them, she adds.

Hedberg also suggests using self-service checkout, which reduces contact with a cashier. “However you pay, wash your hands,” he adds.

Should you wipe down all your items when you get home?

The experts TIME spoke with offered mixed advice on this front. “Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food or food packaging,” the CDC spokesperson wrote on March 27. But other experts told TIME that there is a small risk the virus could end up on something you buy. “For complete risk reduction, you might want to clean off your groceries,” says Baeten. “That would take the risk from already extremely small, to extremely smaller or nothing.”

Swartzberg suggests first putting your grocery bags on the floor and washing your hands; then unloading your groceries and wiping them down with disinfectant wipes or sprays; and finally, letting them fully dry to make sure the chemicals have worked. You could also not wipe your non-perishable goods and instead let them sit out for 72 hours, since the virus will likely be gone by then, he adds.

Regardless, once you’ve unpacked your groceries, you should clean your hands again, the CDC says. You should then clean your kitchen surfaces, including countertops, cabinet handles, and light switches. “You should try to clean these surfaces often,” the spokesperson writes.

But, keep in mind that if you have a sparse amount of cleaning supplies, which many people do, “you want to keep those cleaning supplies for when you really need them,” like on shopping cart handles, says Sauer. She adds that certain containers, like cardboard boxes, also can’t be decontaminated with just a wipe because they’re porous.

Hedberg also advises being careful to not wipe hazardous chemicals on food. “Using bleach on packaging materials or foods may create more problems than it could theoretically solve,” he writes in an email.

Just make sure to wash your fruits and vegetables like you normally would. If you want to be extra thorough, Fielding suggests using a vegetable brush, and to clean it between using it on each individual piece of produce. Also always make sure to wash your hands before and after preparing food, the CDC writes.

When is the best time to visit the grocery store?

Many stores have set aside certain hours just for high-risk individuals, such as senior citizens or people who are immunocompromised. Sauer says that “first and foremost” you should respect those hours, which are meant to protect vulnerable individuals who have no other option but to go to the store.

If you belong to this high-risk category, look up what stores around you have these special hours, Fielding says. When possible, have friends or family go to the store for you, Sauer adds.

If you’re not in a high-risk category, consider shopping at “off-peak hours” to avoid crowds, the CDC spokesperson suggests. These times will depend on where you are. Early in the morning or late at night can often be less crowded. Hedberg suggests calling ahead to ask, or using an online guide to track periods of activity.

How often should you go grocery shopping?

Go as infrequently as possible without resorting to hoarding behavior, experts say. There is plenty of food in storage facilities around the U.S., it’s been reported, so it’s more a matter of getting it off those shelves and into stores. Hoarding is unnecessary and risks taking supplies away from people who need them.

But in general, try to stay home as much as possible. Sauer suggests going every few weeks if that’s a financial option. It will not only reduce your risk of exposure, but also helps reduce the number of people in the store, she says.

Still, make sure you always have enough food to provide safe and nutritious meals for your whole household, Hedberg stresses. Eating well is a crucial component of staying healthy, even if getting that food can feel stressful.

“Every shopping outing has some risk,” Fielding writes. “So grocery shop as infrequently as possible and practical.”

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