Is Grocery Shopping Safe During The Coronavirus Outbreak? Here's What Experts Say

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As the United States continues to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, we're all looking for ways to take smart, precautionary measures in our daily lives. If you’re planning to practice social distancing — which is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and is proven to drastically prevent the spread of diseases — your first thought may turn to food. What should you be buying? How much do you need? And, perhaps the most pressing question, is it safe to grocery shop during the COVID-19 outbreak? The short answer to the last question is yes but with some very significant caveats.

Can The Coronavirus Spread Through Things Like Shopping Carts And Food Packaging?

As the CDC reports, COVID-19 isn’t known to be transmitted through food. So, no need to change your habits as pre-packaged foods, grab-and-go meals, and fresh produce (washed as you would typically clean produce) are all safe to eat. Food that’s prepared and handled properly poses minimal risk of transmitted coronavirus. However, the way that COVID-19 is spread will impact how you grocery shop and handle your groceries.

Hard surfaces — from door handles to shopping carts to shelves to the packaging on food — can be contaminated by the virus and lead to the transmission of COVID-19 to an uninfected person. According to the latest information from the World Health Organization (WHO), this novel coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets. Think the stuff that comes out when you cough and sneeze. WHO has estimated that the virus in infected respiratory droplets can survive somewhere between a few hours to a few days.

Dr. Navya Mysore, MD, family provider at One Medical, tells Bustle via email that there is "definitely a risk to shopping in stores," in particular if the store is crowded as many stores currently are. However, "there is more risk from person-to-person transmission and less of a risk when touching produce at the grocery store," Mysore says.

In theory, if someone with COVID-19 sneezed, coughed, or otherwise spread their infected respiratory droplets onto a shopping cart or store handle, then an uninfected person touched those respiratory droplets while opening a door or grabbing a cart, and then touched their face, the uninfected person could become infected and may get sick. However, being in a crowded store is is what causes the greater risk as opposed to the produce itself.

Should I Get All My Groceries Delivered & Only Shop Online?

In short, no. If online delivery isn't your usual way to shop, you don't need to switch over entirely. However, if you don't have the option to make it to the store, you won't be lack for food delivery choice.

Companies like Postmates, DoorDash, Shipt, Instacart, and FreshDirect have introduced or expanded their drop-off delivery options, letting customers request deliveries be left on their doorstep to limit exposure.

As Mysore notes, at-home delivery also poses some risk. Online deliveries are likely to be exposed to more people as they pass through distribution centers, packing, and post offices. In addition to leaving delivery at your doorstep, Mysore recommends wiping down non-porous surfaces on your delivery, as well as your hands.

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However, some healthcare providers like Cassie Majestic, MD, emergency physician, Orange County, are limiting their trips to the store. "I go as little as possible and so I try to keep it at once a week just for things that I need and I take sanitizer with me, of course ... and I try to minimize what I need because a lot of people have bigger families than mine who also need [essential items]," Majestic tells Bustle.

Do I Keep Myself & Others Safe When Grocery Shopping?

First and foremost, if you are sick, stay home. This, of course, depends on the resources at your disposal and your access to paid sick leave in the United States. (Put simply, the unfortunate reality is many people cannot afford to be sick in the United States.) With that in mind, even if you aren’t sick or showing symptoms, experts are recommending you practice social distancing given the widespread nature of coronavirus and the ease with which it is spread. Going to brunch and having happy hour drinks should not outweigh the importance of keeping yourself and others safe and healthy.

Also, for the love of stockpiled beans, wash your hands. Scrub for at least 20 seconds. You can even wash your hands to your favorite song if you’re sick of singing “Happy Birthday” twice over to your sink.

Here are a few more tips from Mysore and Majestic to make sure your trip to the grocery store is safe:

  • Wash your hands: Wash before and after going to the store.
  • Shop at less busy times: Mysore says avoiding crowded shopping times is best if possible. If your usual store has lines out the door, Mysore recommends trying a store you know to be less busy.
  • Stay six feet from other shoppers: "A lot of the grocery stores [in Orange County] have adopted a policy where they only allow a certain amount of people at a time," Majestic says, noting that has helped control lines and act in accordance with social distancing.
  • Don't touch your face when shopping: "I would say the most important thing, too, is just not touching your face," Majestic adds, noting that you should sanitize carts when possible and wash your hands as son as you get home.
  • Wash nonporous containers: "Wiping off products that are packaged can be helpful," Mysore says. "We should always be washing produce from the grocery store, but if you haven’t, I would get into the habit of washing your fruits and vegetables."
  • Again, wash your hands: Wash them before you eat your food.

Can I Shop At An Outdoor Farmer’s Market?

As of March 15, 2020, the CDC is recommending people avoid gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. If you typically shop at a high-traffic farmer's market, you should make a different grocery plan as long as the CDC's 50+ people guideline is in place.

What Should I Buy During The Coronavirus Outbreak?

If you’ve been anywhere near a grocery store, you’ve likely seen your neighbors panic-buying toilet paper. To reiterate what health officials and experts have said, you do not need to stockpile toilet paper. Same goes for bottled water, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizer. Clearing out your local shops of their Purell bottles isn’t smart or savvy; you just look insensitive. Additionally, this type of unnecessary stockpiling leading to stores rationing necessities and putting limits on how much of certain items people can buy.

As far as what you should stock up on during the coronavirus outbreak, the answers are relatively intuitive. Mysore recommends having about two week's worth of essentials, but there is no need to stockpile. "Please be mindful that we all need essentials," Mysore says. Stick to buying a few more nonperishables or long-lasting items than usual (i.e. a couple cans of beans, some pasta, an extra bag of frozen veggies).

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Majestic reminds people to be mindful of other shoppers when buying goods. "I try to just minimize what I need because a lot of people have bigger families than mine who also need stuff," Majestic says.

How Are Grocery Stores Responding To COVID-19?

In addition to ramping up sanitation protocol, major retailers are expanding precautionary measures amidst the coronavirus outbreak. Stores like Target, Trader Joe’s, and Costco have stopped offering food samples. Grocers like Kroger and Publix are adjusting store hours to account for extra cleaning time, as well as time to restock depleted inventory. Popular places to shop like Walmart and Target have released company statements details plans on how they'll proceed during this health pandemic.

Overall, a good rule of thumb is “precaution, not panic.” Yes, you can still grocery shop but be mindful of your health as well as others’ well-being. Yes, you are safe to leave the house to get necessities sparingly, but you don’t need pallets worth of Purell. No, you do not need a basement's worth of toilet paper. As Mysore says, "we need to practice serious concern and take the necessary precautions but please do not panic."

Experts:

Navya Mysore, MD, family provider at One Medical

Cassie Majestic, MD, emergency physician, Orange County

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC or NHS 111 in the UK for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.

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