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AARP Answers: The Post Office and the Coronavirus

The latest on mail safety, delivery delays, stamps, shipping hand sanitizer and more

A mail carrier walking down the street with bags of mail

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

A mail carrier delivers mail in New York City during the coronavirus outbreak.

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Will I catch COVID-19 from the mail?

According to the U.S. Postal Service: “Coronaviruses are thought to be spread primarily through air-borne respiratory droplets resulting from a sneeze, cough or ordinary speech. Although the virus can survive for a short period of time on some surfaces, both CDC and the United States Surgeon General have indicated that it is unlikely to be spread from domestic or international mail, products or packaging.”

The USPS recommends that mail customers follow the same Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that apply to grocery shopping or running errands. Specifically, wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol after handling deliveries or collecting mail.

Will mail continue to be delivered to my home?

Yes. Mail delivery is deemed an essential service by the government. Americans rely on the timely delivery of everything from prescription medications to Social Security checks, and the Postal Service says it's also the leading delivery service for online purchases. Thus far, the Postal Service says it has experienced only “minor operational impacts” in the U.S. due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a May 14 letter to Congress, AARP joined 19 other organization in urging lawmakers to provide the financial support necessary to prevent any disruption to mail delivery: “In the course of this pandemic, the Postal Service has proven to be a lifeline for those Americans, especially those in rural communities, who are most at risk from the coronavirus. More than ever before, people are relying on the USPS to deliver their lifesaving prescription medications and other necessities, allowing them to remain safely at home. This is critically important for Americans with chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma, who need prescription medicines on an ongoing basis and are most at-risk if they contract the coronavirus. Many Americans, especially those without internet access, have also long relied on the Postal Service for vital information about their health and finances. Simply put, throughout this crisis, the Postal Service has demonstrated its vital role in American society – allowing people of all ages stay home, stay informed, and stay safe.”

Will election-related mail be delayed this year?

In a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Aug. 17, ahead of his testimony before Congress, AARP expressed growing concern that recent operational changes made at the Postal Service could compromise the health of older Americans as well as their ability to vote safely in the November elections.

“While AARP shares your goal of ensuring the United States Postal Service (USPS) operates in an effective and efficient manner, we urge you to suspend any adjustments that could negatively affect service during the pandemic,” Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer, said in the letter. “Further, we urge the Postal Service to be more forthcoming and transparent regarding any changes, including a more detailed cost-benefit analysis of the operational changes you have made and will be making to assure timely delivery of all mail, including election-related mail.“

In subsequent congressional testimony, DeJoy assured lawmakers that election-related mail would be delivered in a timely manner, as it was ahead of voting in 2018. “The Postal Service will deliver every ballot,” DeJoy told a Senate committee. The Postmaster General added that operational changes he initiated after he took the helm of the USPS on June 15 would be postponed until after Election Day on Nov. 3.

Are postal carriers following new safety guidelines?

Yes, carriers are wearing face coverings or masks in areas where it’s required by health authorities, and some mail delivery procedures are being temporarily modified to reduce health risks and conform to social distancing guidelines. For example, when a signature is required carriers will enter the first initial and last name of the recipient rather than having the recipient sign. Carriers and other postal employees may also ask customers to stand back or close screen doors when mail is being delivered to residences and businesses.

Are Post Office branches open during the outbreak?

Yes. Employees are being directed to practice social distancing when interacting with customers and follow health safety guidelines such as frequent hand-washing. Sick employees are being told to stay home.

In addition, cough and sneeze guards have been installed at counters, tape or other markers are being employed to enforce proper social distancing, and the number of customers in a location at one time is being limited. Customers entering branches are being asked to wear face coverings in areas where health authorities require them.

I need more stamps. If I don't go to the Post Office, where can I buy them?

Buy stamps online at usps.com. In addition to buying stamps, the online account with the Postal Service allows you to print shipping labels, request pickups and more — all without leaving home.

Stamps are also often sold behind counters at supermarkets, drug stores and other retailers, if you choose to make an essential trip (or if a caregiver is shopping for you).

I have family members who need hand sanitizer. I have extra. Can I mail it to them?

Since most hand sanitizers and wipes contain alcohol, which makes them flammable, the Postal Services requires them to be shipped by one of three surface-transportation methods: Retail Ground, Parcel Select or Parcel Select Lightweight. These services are available only at Post Office branches.

I need to send a letter overseas. Will it get there on time?

It depends. The Postal Service is warning of delays or suspension of international deliveries to and from dozens of countries due to flight cancellations and actions by foreign governments. (See the list of impacted countries.)

Can I still apply for a passport at the Post Office?

Yes, but only by appointment; no walk-ins. However, the U.S. Department of State, which issues passports, is warning of significant delays to issue a new passport or renew an expiring passport due to the pandemic.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect new information.

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