How to Grocery Shop Safely During the Pandemic
Experts share how to keep yourself safe before, during and after those necessary grocery-store runs.
Grocery shopping is a necessary part of everyday life, especially when you’re making breakfast, lunch and dinner at home. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s vital to approach routine activities like grocery shopping with extra caution, especially if grocery delivery isn’t an option. Just thinking about a trip to the grocery store can bring up a host of questions: How clean is my local store — especially those high-touch surfaces like grocery carts and credit card machines? Is the food safe? Do I need a mask and gloves?
Before adding more questions to the list, it’s important to note that most experts agree the biggest concern around grocery shopping isn’t the food or the food packaging — it’s the proximity to other people including fellow shoppers and store employees. We spoke to four infectious disease and grocery experts about how to grocery shop during this pandemic. Here are steps you can take to shop safer right now.
Before You Leave Home
- Take stock of how you’re feeling. If you aren’t feeling well, or have any symptoms (such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing), stay home, says Dr. Karen Krueger, MD, infectious disease specialist and instructor of medicine at Northwestern Medicine. Have groceries delivered, or ask a friend or neighbor to get some things for you when they shop for themselves. If you do the latter, ask your friend to leave the groceries outside your door and pay them virtually; avoid in-person contact.
- Pack bags. "If you want to use your own bags, you can avoid using the cart or the basket, which are very high-touch surface areas," says Lauren Sauer, director of operations for the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response. Be sure your reusable bags are clean, and bring extras, just in case, as some stores are limiting bags or not offering them at all.
- Plan ahead. Minimizing trips to the store is key, so look for ways to reduce how often you go. "Make a list of what you need and what you can purchase for a week or two," Sauer says. "Don't try to formulate the plan once you get there." Also, check the store’s website before you leave. Stores are using their websites more than ever to communicate changes in hours, policies and stock, says Laura Strange, spokesperson for the National Grocers Association.
- Clean up. "Before you leave home, make sure you just washed your hands, your clothes are clean, and your outerwear is clean," says Dr. Tania Elliott, MD, attending physician at NYU Langone, specializing in infectious disease, allergy and immunology.
- Pack hand sanitizer. You’re probably already packing it — but be sure you’re using it frequently. Use it right away whenever you come in contact with a high-touch surface, like after you’ve held on to a pole on a bus or train, or used the credit card machine at the store, Sauer says. "I keep hand sanitizer in my car so that I can do that before I even touch my seatbelt or the steering wheel or the inside of the door."
- Go alone. We’re all anxious to get outside, but a trip to the store is not the time for a family outing. Having one person doing the shopping reduces store crowding, Strange says. Plus, social distancing is more of a challenge with children in tow.
At the Store
Respect designated hours. "A lot of stores have made hours just for people who are elderly or immunocompromised, and it's really important that we respect those hours, because they don't have the option to avoid us sometimes, the people who may make them sick," Sauer says. "Giving them the space they need to safely get food without an increased risk is really important."
Cover up. All the experts we spoke to recommend wearing a mask and gloves in the store. Remove and discard of gloves properly in a garbage bin after leaving the store. If you’re wearing a cloth mask, the CDC recommends washing it frequently in the washing machine.
Wipe down surfaces. If you’re using a cart or basket instead of your own bags, clean them before touching them. "If the store has wipes, absolutely use them on the handles of the cart or the handles of the basket," Sauer says. Stash some in your pocket or purse just in case.
Keep your distance. Look for stores that are setting limits on how many shoppers can go inside at one time to help with social distancing. "When you're moving throughout the store, you really want to try to keep that six feet of distance at all times," Sauer says. "If you pass an aisle that looks crowded, skip it. Go back to it later when it's opened up a little bit."
Follow store guidelines. Stores are handling social distancing in different ways. Some are placing decals on the floor, others have designated one-way aisles. However your local store is handling it, be mindful and follow the guidelines, Strange says. She notes that procedures in stores may change over time, so stay alert and be flexible.
Touch less. "Avoid touching multiple things and putting them back," ;Dr. Elliott says. "If you touch it, take it." You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: Keep your hands away from your face until you’ve thoroughly washed your hands. Another habit to change: Don’t touch your phone or any other personal items while you’re in the store, Sauer says. It’s tough to avoid the reflex of grabbing your phone when you’re in line, but it’s important to avoid touching it until you’ve washed your hands.
Charge it. "Pay with a credit card instead of cash, because cash touches multiple hands," Dr. Elliott says. You can use a wipe to clean your card after using it.
- Manage bags. If you bring bags home from the store, toss them, Dr. Elliott says. If you brought your own, wash or sanitize them.
- Wash your hands. Wash thoroughly when you get home from the store, again after putting away groceries and both before and after preparing food, Dr. Krueger says.
- Clean surfaces. After you’ve put food away, wipe down the counter or any other surfaces they touched. "It’s unlikely that you’ll transmit the virus from touching food or food packaging, but the virus can live on surfaces for a period of time, so it’s an extra precaution," Dr. Krueger says. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it’s not necessary to sanitize your food or food packaging. If you choose to anyway, be sure to use food-safe cleaners, not bleach or other harsh cleansers, Sauer notes. Be sure to sanitize your phone, too.