How to Stay Safe While Grocery Shopping During the Pandemic

Follow these 8 steps when running essential errands to reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19.

woman grocery shopping during COVID-19 pandemic

While researchers work on a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, the best way to prevent illness remains avoiding exposure to COVID-19. That means staying home and practicing social distancing. But what happens when you need essential items, such as food and medicine? What can you do to protect yourself while grocery shopping and running other errands during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Health Matters asked Dr. Michael Ford, primary care internist at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Hudson Valley, for his tips on how to handle groceries and getting takeout and deliveries during the pandemic.

Limit the number of trips to the store.

Minimize your time in places such as grocery stores and pharmacies by stocking up on what you need. Doctors, for example, may be able to prescribe a 90-day supply of medicine. As for food and other supplies, don’t hoard, but know what you need so that you have enough to last for at least two weeks. “Plan ahead and stock up by buying food and medicines that will last,” says Dr. Ford. “That way you limit your risk of exposure because you leave the house less often.”

Wear a face covering.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing a cloth face covering whenever you are out in public. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also issued an order, on April 15, requiring all New Yorkers to wear face coverings wherever social distancing is not possible. (N95 respirator and surgical masks should remain reserved for healthcare workers and medical first-responders.)

Many people have taken the opportunity to get creative and sew their own cloth masks, but you can just as easily create one from a bandana or a scarf. “If it’s a thin scarf, double it up to make it thicker,” says Dr. Ford. “Any covering is better than none. Just be sure to cover both the nose and mouth.”

Don’t forget to routinely wash the face coverings.

Gloves won’t fully protect you.

Dr. Ford recommends not wearing gloves while shopping because it may provide a false sense of security. “This may sound counterintuitive, but when people wear gloves they become more cavalier about what surfaces they touch with their hands,” he explains. “Gloves can pick up substances, and people may then touch their faces and transmit those substances. If you are out in public without gloves, you will be much more careful about what you touch. Bring hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol) with you, use it frequently, avoid touching your face, and wash your hands immediately upon arriving home.”

Wipe down your cart before shopping.

Since you’re not the first to handle a shopping cart — and won’t be the last — wipe down the shopping cart’s handles before using it. Use an alcohol-based disinfectant wipe containing at least 70% alcohol if you have it. Some stores are providing disinfectant wipes at the doors to encourage this behavior.

Practice social distancing when in stores.

Even though many people are staying home, stores can still get crowded. Try to remain at least 6 feet apart from other people; this includes while waiting at the register. Some stores are enforcing this policy by allowing only a certain number of people in at once. Experts stress that the virus is transmitted mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, which is why social distancing is such an important tool to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Handle groceries and packages with care.

“The data is still out as far as how long SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can last on surfaces,” says Dr. Ford. On May 22, the CDC issued a news release to clarify what it knows about COVID-19 transmission through surfaces. It stated: “The primary and most important mode of transmission for COVID-19 is through close contact from person-to-person. Based on data from lab studies on COVID-19 and what we know about similar respiratory diseases, 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 isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

While the risk of transmission through surfaces is not as great as person-to-person, it’s still important to wash your hands and not touch your face. If you want to further reduce risk when grocery shopping, Dr. Ford recommends using disposable bags and leaving groceries or packages outside your door and wiping them down before bringing them inside your home. If you bring them inside, here’s how you can handle the groceries.

Remember to also wipe down any surfaces you came into contact with, including doorknobs, refrigerator handles, and kitchen counters. Then, of course, wash your hands.

Cleaning produce is an individual decision.

While it’s easy enough to wipe down containers, canned goods and cereal boxes, handling fruits and vegetables is a trickier question. Some have suggested washing produce in a soapy bath, though the CDC, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Department of Agriculture have all stated that “currently there is no evidence of food, food containers, or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”

Dr. Ford understands the impulse to give raw vegetables and fruits a deeper clean. But when it comes to washing produce with soap and water, “I suspect it may be overkill,” he says. “But people should do what they feel most comfortable with.”

Keep in mind that alcohol, bleach, and cleaning detergents are not safe to consume, which is why rinsing in water is the general recommendation.

Opt for deliveries if you can.

When you get groceries and other home essentials delivered, you reduce your risk of exposure because you are staying at home. This goes for ordering takeout as well. While the risk of exposure isn’t entirely gone, “a contactless delivery means you do not leave your house and you do not come into contact with any food service workers,” says Dr. Ford.

For food or household staples that come in a box, follow the same sanitizing measures as mentioned above. For delivery takeout food, take the food out of the packaging and place it onto a plate, dispose of the packaging, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling. Concerned about handling your mail and newspapers? Since paper has a more porous surface, sanitizing it is difficult. Dr. Ford recommends opening and reading mail while wearing gloves. “Same with newspapers, or you could start reading online.”

Even during a pandemic we still need our essentials. Following these measures will mean a safer experience when shopping for and putting away groceries or receiving takeout deliveries.

Michael E. Ford, M.D., is a primary care internist at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Hudson Valley and an assistant professor of medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. For over a decade, Dr. Ford has been practicing as an internist and is actively involved in internal medicine research. His research in bacteriology has been published in various medical journals and he has presented his findings at annual medical meetings.

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