9 Things We Can Do to Stay Safe While at the Grocery Store

updated Apr 3, 2020
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In the olden days (aka, a couple of weeks ago), grocery shopping was widely considered to be one of two things: a mild inconvenience or therapeutic experience. No matter which camp you fell in, though, it wasn’t much of a life-threatening endeavor. Unfortunately, these days, it seems a lot more dangerous because of the risk of transmitting COVID-19.

While widespread stay-at-home orders are put in place, we continue to risk person-to-person contact at hubs of essential services like grocery stores, doctors offices, and pharmacies, because, well, essential goods and services are needed. These types of errands will be inevitable occurrences in the weeks and months ahead, so we consulted an expert to determine how best to stay safe while doing what remains absolutely necessary, especially when it comes to feeding ourselves and our families.

First and foremost: Do not leave the house if you feel sick. If possible, ask a family member, friend, or neighbor to pick up groceries for you or schedule a no-contact online delivery service. If you are in good health, however, here is a simple checklist of expert-approved tips for how to stay that way in the event that you do go grocery shopping.

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1. Swipe cart or basket handles with a disinfectant wipe before you touch them.

While a sizable grocery haul would be pretty hard to maneuver without the use of a cart or basket, we understand why you might be hesitant to touch something that countless people (of unknown infection status) have handled before you. Disinfecting high-touch areas like cart and basket handles is best practice and might even help bring you some peace of mind, according to Dr. Donald Schaffner, a Food Microbiologist at Rutgers University who specializes in quantitative microbial risk assessment, predictive food microbiology, hand-washing, and cross-contamination.

Lots of supermarkets always (and especially now) offer wipes by the entrance. In case this system isn’t in place where you shop, or the containers are empty, bring your own as a backup. And please, please, please be sure to properly dispose of the wipe in a trash receptacle when you’re finished with it. We have seen reports of people leaving dirty wipes in carts and baskets, which puts others at risk.

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2. Stay six feet away from other shoppers.

You’ve probably familiarized yourself with the rules of proper social distancing by now, but if you have not: The CDC recommends staying six-feet away from other people because the virus is thought to spread from close person-to-person contact. In Schaffner’s words “Practice appropriate social distancing, trying your best to keep six feet away from other shoppers.” For reference: Think of six feet as two grocery cart lengths.

We understand that this can be difficult to put into practice, especially in a crowded grocery store setting in which shoppers are all clamoring for the same items in confined aisles, but the key here is to “try your best.” To make this slightly more achievable, stores like Trader Joe’s have implemented policies, lining up customers six feet apart before entering the store and allowing only a certain number of shoppers in the store at a time.

3. Only touch the items you intend to purchase.

Schaffner gave the following advice in a twitter thread which has now gone viral: “Make a list, know what you want, and move quickly and efficiently through the store picking out the items on your list.” In order to move through the store in a quick and efficient manner, shop with your eyes first and touch only what’s absolutely necessary, Meaning: Only touch the items that will eventually go home with you. This will help avoid the unnecessary transfer of viral agents.

4. Don’t touch your face — ever.

Not until we were explicitly instructed by the CDC to stop touching our faces did we realize just how hard that is (and how often we do it!). But considering how easily Covid-19 can spread via respiratory droplets that can wind up in our mouths and noses, this advice should be taken seriously.

5. Wear a cloth mask.

There has been lots of conflicting information on this matter—and there still is. Until recently, the CDC did not recommend that healthy people wear masks — this was partially meant to discourage healthy people from hoarding PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and creating supply shortages for medical professionals. However, guidelines have shifted, as officials are now encouraging people to take measures to cover their faces while out in public. That said, as we continue to learn of increasing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) shortages at hospitals across the nation, it can seem selfish to procure one’s own medical-grade mask.

To solve for that, experts like Schaffner are taking an increased interest in cloth masks for everyday use, to reserve PPE for medical professionals.”There’s a lot of interest in homemade face masks. My colleagues at North Carolina State and I are currently in the midst of developing recommendations. When those recommendations are ready we will post them here. I think if you have a mask and you are not taking one away from a medical professional, it’s OK to wear it in public. Note that the mask is really not protecting you, is protecting others in case you are infected with COVID-19, but are asymptomatic.”

If you’re interested in purchasing a cloth mask, we recommend Hedley & Bennet, which has converted their apron-making company into a fabric non-surgical mask-making operation. “The Wake Up & Fight Mask”campaign is a buy one, give one deal. For every mask purchased, Hedley & Bennet is donating one to medical professionals on the front lines.

6. Be smart about wearing gloves.

Again, the CDC doesn’t make a recommendation about wearing gloves, so we asked Schaffner: “If you have rubber gloves, and it makes you feel better to wear them, and you’re not taking them literally out of the hands of medical professionals, I don’t see a problem with it. Keep in mind that rubber gloves don’t kill germs, so if you touch something with SARS-CoV-2 and then stick your finger in your nose, wearing the gloves won’t help at all.” Wear gloves while you shop and then take them off, but you’ll still want to wash your hands afterward for extra precaution.

As we previously mentioned with used wipes, used gloves should not be discarded anywhere but the trash. Again, abandoning them in your cart or basket puts others at risk.

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7. Check your grocery store’s reusable bag policy.

Another unfortunate consequence of this global pandemic is the backpedaling that stores have had to do on their efforts to limit the use of plastic bags. Some stores have banned the use of reusable bags because a few circles believe that the bags can more easily transmit the virus than paper or plastic options. We consulted Schaffner for his opinion on the matter: “I know of at least one state that has banned their use (not based on science as far as I know). I also know some grocery store chains have banned their use out of fear that it may spread infection to their employees. Again, I’m not sure this is based on science, but anything a store wants to do to keep their employees healthy and happy, I’m happy to honor it. These front-line food workers are so important to us right now in these times, they need to be kept safe.”

While there is no definitive scientific answer on whether or not reusable bags increase the risk of spread, we agree with Schaffner that if a store limits their use for employee safety, it’s important to comply. However, if you continue to use reusable grocery bags, it is (and has always been) best practice to wash them before and after going to the grocery store. Schaffner also recommends leaving reusable shopping bags in your car when not in use to limit human contact.

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8. If self-checkout is an option, choose that.

We asked Schaffner about the urge to pay with a card instead of cash at the grocery store, as it was our intuition that fumbling around with and handing over physical bills (and getting change back) is riskier to both the shopper and the cashier. He responded that “we have no evidence that COVID-19 is spread via money or credit cards.” He prefers a different method if available: “Even before the pandemic I always prefer to use self check out. I’m continuing to do that during a pandemic. If I am infected but asymptomatic, this will reduce the chance that I infect the person at the cash register checking me out, and vice versa.”

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9. Use hand sanitizer as soon as you leave the store.

We are all well aware that frequently washing our hands for 20 seconds is one of the very best things we can do to avoid getting sick right now. According to Schaffner, a thorough hand washing will “likely give you somewhere between a 90 a 99 percent reduction in transient microorganisms on your hands.” However, we realize that you cannot get to running water immediately after leaving the grocery store. Alternatively, hand sanitizer (containing 60 percent alcohol) is the next best thing. Schaffner walks the walk: “If there is hand sanitizer available, I use it when I’m exiting the store.” Then either use hand sanitizer or wash your hands when you’re done putting the groceries away.

Do you have any other grocery shopping safety questions? Leave them in the comments below.