With communities across the country virtually shut down, there is still one place nearly everyone needs to visit at some point: the grocery store. Experts say deliveries are safer, but sometimes it can be hard to get one scheduled right away. So if you must go to the store, what’s the best way to navigate the aisles and crowds? Information and guidance about the virus is changing quickly, so we asked the experts.
Is it safe to go to the grocery store?
Try to minimize visits to the store. “The biggest risk factor is really being around other people,” says Benjamin Chapman, a professor of food safety at North Carolina State University.
That’s because the novel coronavirus is spread largely through droplets from nearby people coughing or sneezing. If you must go, maintain a buffer around yourself and try to go at off-hours. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a 6-foot buffer, while the World Health Organization says 3 feet will suffice).
It’s hard to maintain a distance from cashiers, so use self-checkout when possible and use hand sanitizer when you’re done.
Should I wear a mask or gloves to the grocery store?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reversed previous recommendations, advising all Americans to wear cloth face masks when out in public, which includes when in the grocery store.
They don’t recommend wearing the N95 respirator masks or surgical masks, which should be reserved for health care workers who are facing a shortage of protective equipment.
Gloves don’t help much if you’re going to touch your eyes, nose or mouth with them. Rather, experts say, wash your hands with soap and water before going out and when coming home, and use hand sanitizer when out. If you use gloves, choose disposable ones and throw them before getting into your car or as soon as you get home (if you’re walking or taking public transportation).
Try not to use your phone when in the store. If you do, clean it when you get home.
Should I bring wipes with me? What should I wipe down?
Dr. Chapman says many grocery stores are providing shoppers with wipes. If not, it’s a good idea to bring your own, mainly to wipe the grocery cart. Just make sure the wipes are on the list registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Wipes can also be used for other high-touch areas in the store like freezer handles or tongs used in self-serve bins.
Any other precautions I should take?
Try to avoid exchanging money or credit cards with the cashier. Use a credit-card reader when possible.
If I’m a senior or have an underlying medical condition, should I try to go to the store during special seniors hours?
People over 65 and those who have medical conditions that put them at greater risk of hospitalization and serious illness should avoid going to the grocery store, if possible. Try to order groceries online or have a family member or friend deliver them while taking precautions. If you must visit the store, go during hours reserved for seniors, when the store is likely to be less crowded.
When I get home, what should I do with any paper or plastic bags or packaging?
Though there have been no documented cases of transmission of the novel coronavirus through food packaging, a recent NEJM study found that the virus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on hard surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel for two to three days. But experts noted that the studies were done in a laboratory with high doses of the virus, so it’s unknown if in real life the virus can be transmitted that way. Most likely if someone were to sneeze or cough on a cardboard container, the virus would degrade more quickly due to environmental factors, such as sunlight.
The study didn’t look at paper or plastic bags. Still, James Lloyd-Smith, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and one of the study’s authors, said if someone else handled the materials recently it’s a good idea to discard them and wash your hands.
But experts say wiping down cereal boxes and other packages isn’t necessary. “Use the wipes when you need them,” says Dr. Chapman. If you’re home you can easily wash your hands. “That’s going to reduce your risk as much if not more than trying to wipe everything down,” he says.
Randy Worobo, a professor of food microbiology at Cornell University, says instead of being preoccupied with wiping down packaging and containers, focus on washing your hands. “It’s much better to treat your hands, wash your hands, rather than dealing with all the surfaces,” says Dr. Worobo.