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How To Keep Yourself Safe When Grocery Shopping And Handling Items

Gene J. Puskar
This May 3, 2017, photo shows a display of fruit in a Whole Foods grocery in Upper Saint Clair, Pa.

Though Gov. Tom Wolf has mandated that all those in Allegheny County stay at home, grocery shopping is still considered an essential activity, and many stores across the region are still open for business. But when the most important thing we can do for public well-being is social distancing, how do we stay safe in grocery stores?

Because coronavirus is a respiratory virus, it is primarily transmitted through the air. It is unlikely one might contract the virus from touching products — the primary concern is being in close quarters with other people.

Here are a few tips to help you navigate the now-confusing task of buying groceries.

In the store:

Don’t bring reusable bags

Though reducing waste is important, limiting what you bring into the store can help reduce the chance of potentially contributing to the spread of COVID-19. It is currently unclear how long the virus might stay on nylon materials, but according to Dr. Lee Harrison, head of the Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Research Unit at the University of Pittsburgh, there is recent evidence that “the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can remain viable on plastic for up to three days.”

Given the virus’s shelf life, stores like Giant Eagle are asking customers to not bring their own bags.

Should I stay, or should I go?

Dr. Harrison says that “people with fever or other symptoms of COVID-19 should not go to the grocery store at all,” and he recommends that vulnerable populations, like the elderly or those with high-risk medical conditions, make alternative arrangements to get groceries without going to the store themselves. He says that anyone who does go to the store should practice social distancing and “good hand hygiene before entering, after leaving, and after handling food items at home.”

If you do need to get groceries, try to do your shopping at off-peak hours. Fewer people in the store reduces the chances of transmission. If you see people you know, make sure to maintain the recommended 6-foot distance, and pay attention to how close you are to your fellow shoppers. Be mindful that many stores are reserving the first hour of operations for elderly customers.

Sanitizing wipes over gloves

Some health officials say that wearing gloves to stores is unnecessary. Often, people wearing gloves still touch their faces, which reduces the effectiveness of the gloves.

“The value of gloves depends on how they are used. Sanitizing wipes make sense for decontaminating any high-touch surfaces,” says Dr. Harrison.

If sanitizing wipes are not available, he says “not touching your face and good hand hygiene should suffice.” Wash your hands before you enter a store and as soon as you get home. Remember to not touch your face or rub your eyes, and be sure to use hand sanitizer while shopping.

At home:

Wash your hands

As soon as you return from being outside, wash your hands.

Disinfect nonporous things, wash vegetables, clean surfaces.

Initial studies show that coronavirus remains the longest on plastic materials, up to 72 hours, then on stainless steel, up to 48 hours, and then copper and cardboard, for at most a day. However, it is important to note that the virus becomes less infectious as time passes. You can wipe down plastic and steel materials when you get home (like cans, bottles, and jars) with a disinfectant wipe, but just washing your hands after handling items from outside may be the best bet.

There is no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can be transmitted through produce or food products. It is always important and a good idea to practice responsible food handling techniques, like washing produce with water (soap is not necessary, as soap and household cleaners cannot be ingested), keeping raw meat separate from other foods, and refrigerating perishable items as soon as you return home. 

Keep surfaces in your house clean, especially after bringing in products from outside. Wipe down counters that your bags have been on.

While decontaminating store-bought products is reasonable, Dr. Harrison reiterates that, “the best prevention is good hand hygiene, and not touching your face after touching potentially contaminated surfaces.”

Grocery employees face the biggest risk in stores, as they are interacting with many people each day. Many of the social distancing measures in place at these stores are to protect vulnerable employees, just as much as customers.