En español | Whether you are grocery shopping for yourself or helping friends and family in need, here's what experts say about staying safe while going in and out of stores.
"Exhausting all other options is really important here,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and professor at North Carolina State University.
Chapman urges older adults and those at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 to take advantage of alternatives to in-person shopping trips, like asking friends or family to run errands, using a grocery delivery service, or opting for curbside pickup.
Some major pharmacy chains have waived fees for in-home delivery services, and a growing number of mutual aid organizations, among them AARP Community Connections, pair those in need with volunteers who can deliver groceries and other supplies.
Plan your visit
If you need to venture out, “this is not the time to do impulsive shopping,” says June McKoy, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Northwestern Medicine. “Make your list and go in like a Marine goes in: Parachute in, do your business, parachute out."
Part of that approach means visiting stores during off-peak hours when fewer customers are present, McKoy says. This helps to maintain social distancing, like staying 6 feet away from others in public as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is intended to slow the spread of the outbreak,
The same goes for pharmacies, where McKoy suggests arriving early in the morning to beat crowds. Now's also the time, she says, to ask your health care provider about getting a 90-day supply of medications to limit future outings for refills.
For grocery trips, Chapman recommends shopping at stores that have started implementing precautionary measures of their own, like limiting the number of customers allowed inside the store at one time, putting up markers that keep people properly spaced in line, or installing panels between customers and cashiers at checkout. Many chains now offer special hours for older shoppers, typically in the morning.
In the store
The CDC encourages all Americans to wear cloth face masks that cover their nose and mouth in public settings like grocery stores and pharmacies. This does not replace the need to keep your distance from others, the agency says, but is an additional measure to help slow the spread of the disease.
When you enter the store, the experts recommend cleaning the supermarket cart or basket handle with a disinfectant wipe (some stores provide these for free, but availability isn't guaranteed, so bring wipes with you).
As for handling food packages and produce as you shop? “We have no evidence at all that food or food packaging are transmission vectors that we consider to be risky in this outbreak,” Chapman says, meaning you can touch goods and fill your cart as you normally would — being careful to avoid touching your mask, eyes, or other uncovered parts of your face for the entirety of your errand.
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CDC guidelines for grocery shoppers
- Only shop in person when you absolutely need to.
- Avoid shopping if you are sick.
- Stay at least 6 feet away from others.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face covering.
- Shop during off-peak hours or during special hours for high-risk people (65 or older, and those with serious underlying medical conditions).
- Disinfect shopping cart with wipes if available.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Use touchless payment if available.
- Use hand sanitizer right after paying with cash or touching a keypad.
- Use hand sanitizer after leaving store, then wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds at home.
According to the CDC, “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
So more important than worrying about food packaging, Chapman says, is maintaining distance from others, a consideration that also arises at checkout.
Choosing between self-checkout or a cashier lane presents what he calls a “risk-risk tradeoff,” because each option poses its own hazards: Self-checkout allows you to avoid face-to-face contact with a cashier, but you'll have to touch parts of the kiosk that many shoppers have touched before you.
Some stores and states have banned reusable shopping bags, or require that customers who bring their own bags use the self-checkout option. Chapman notes that there is no observed link between reusable bags and the spread of COVID-19, but as a best practice, shoppers can clean and disinfect bags at home after use.
Bottom line? Choose the checkout option you're comfortable with. And in either case, both experts say to use a credit or debit card — not cash — when it's time to pay because the former can be safely wiped down with a disinfectant wipe after use (and even in a cashier lane, you'll likely be able to insert your own card into the card reader — bypassing a handoff of bills or coins).
Once you exit the store, Chapman and McKoy advise cleaning your hands with a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol, being sure to do this before getting into your vehicle if you're traveling by car.
Once you get in the door, McKoy says to put down any shopping bags or goods on the floor and walk “straight to the sink” to wash your hands.
After that, you can put groceries or other supplies away, after which both experts advise another round of handwashing.
Given that contact with food and food packaging isn't thought to be a main way the virus spreads, Chapman says there's no need to carry out any special disinfecting procedures on food packages or produce once you return home (and using products like soap or other disinfectants on food can pose separate health risks).
Instead, rinse fresh produce like you normally would — with clear water, and wash your hands before preparing food or eating meals.
Drop-offs and delivery
If you're shopping for someone else, McKoy and Chapman advise keeping your handoff as streamlined as possible.
Ideally, Chapman says, this is a “touchless, interactionless” delivery, in which you leave groceries or supplies on a front step or porch, then call or text the person to alert them.
If you need to go inside someone else's home, follow the same protocol as you would in your own: Put bags down, wash your hands thoroughly, and then put groceries or other supplies away while avoiding all unnecessary contact with surfaces, like leaning on countertops.
McKoy says that if you're on the receiving end of goods that someone else brings into your home or puts away for you, it's a good idea to wipe down door handles and any surfaces they may have touched after they depart. (The CDC already recommends cleaning and disinfecting “high-touch” surfaces like doorknobs and light switches daily.)
Make hygiene a habit
With the need to adhere to social distancing and stricter hygiene habits likely to persist for some time, McKoy stresses the importance of consistency — especially for older adults who may need to rethink daily routines and habits that have been set in place for many years.
"It might be a good idea to map out your strategies,” she says. “If you keep using the same strategies, you'll never miss a step. It becomes your daily routine."