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We're sharing sensible advice for food shopping safely.

By Michelle Preli
Updated April 06, 2020
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Much of the country is grappling with how to avoid unnecessary social contact in order to help "flatten the curve" of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. While Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, has said the next two weeks are crucial and Americans should "not be going to the grocery store," that's not always possible for everyone—not everyone has enough groceries to last that long, and depending on where you live, grocery delivery service might be extremely limited. If either of those scenarios ring true for you, here's what to know about shopping in the grocery store. First and foremost, keep two things top of mind: Practice social distancing by remaining six feet or more away from others, and wash your hands thoroughly before and after every shopping trip.

woman in supermarket aisle
Credit: Getty Images/PeopleImages

First, Know That There's Low Risk of Getting Sick from Food Packaging

Both the FDA and CDC agree, currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. "While there is no published evidence of contracting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) from touching food or food packaging that came in contact with the virus due to coughing or sneezing from an infected person, the virus causing COVID-19 can survive on surfaces and objects for a certain amount of time," writes the Harvard School of Public Health. "The available evidence suggests this is up to about three days on hard surfaces like metal or plastic and about one day on soft surfaces like cardboard."

However, there's an important detail to note from the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Joseph G. Allen, assistant professor of exposure and assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health points out in the Washington Post: "The virus can be detected on some surfaces for up to a day, but the reality is that the levels drop off quickly. For example, the article shows that the virus's half-life on stainless steel and plastic was 5.6 hours and 6.8 hours, respectively. (Half-life is how long it takes the viral concentration to decrease by half, then half of that half, and so on until it's gone.)" That means COVID-19 is unlike some other viruses that can persist on food or other surfaces for long periods. "In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures," says the CDC.

Wear a Mask

The Centers for Disease Control now recommends that Americans wear a cloth face covering "in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission." It's important to note that the cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. "Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance," writes the CDC.

Keep a Safe Distance

Face coverings do not replace the need to main physical distancing measures. According to the CDC, "It is critical to emphasize that maintaining six-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus."  This is a respiratory disease that spreads from person-to-person transmission, so keeping your distance from others is essential. "The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person, between people who are in close contact with one another (within about six feet), through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes," according to the CDC. Avoiding close contact with people is the best strategy. Both FDA and CDC guidance strongly emphasize staying at least six feet away from other people—that means when you are entering the store, in the aisles, as well as while waiting in the check out line.

Limit Your Time in the Supermarket

"Try to minimize your trips to the store and visit at off-peak hours to avoid crowds," recommends the Harvard School of Public Health. Plan ahead what you will buy so you know what you need for a few weeks. Consider using drive-thru, pickup, or contact-free delivery options.

Wipe Down High-Touch Surfaces

Store door handles, freezer handles, self-service scanners or key-pads, and the handles on your car are high-touch surfaces that can be cleaned with disinfectant wipes. You'll also want to sanitize your shopping cart and basket handles before entering the store. "Use provided wipes in the store (or bring your own) to wipe down all surfaces of the cart or basket that you touch. Discard the wipe immediately," recommends the Harvard School of Public Health. "Some stores may run out of hand sanitizer, so be prepared and bring along a pair of disposable gloves with you. Put them on before touching the shopping cart or basket." Be sure to discard the disposable gloves after use. Since it can be tricky to take gloves off without using at least one bare hand, wash your hands well afterward.

Only Touch the Items You Need

New etiquette rule? You touch it, you buy it. While the risk is low, there is no need to touch things more than necessary. Plus, you'll do your fellow shoppers a service by only touching the things you plan to take with you.

Bag Your Own Groceries

This limits the number of other people touching your items or your bag. It also helps store workers keep their distance. Consider bringing your own tote that can be washed after each use. (Many cities, such as New York City, already have bring-your-own bag laws in place to cut down on the use of plastic bags for environmental reasons. Some stores, however, are asking shoppers not to use their own bags in light of the outbreak, so make sure to check with your local grocer before heading out.)

Sanitize Your Hands

The Harvard School of Public Health recommends carrying hand sanitizer to use after leaving the building. "You may also wish to sanitize car door handles and house doorknobs if you have touched them without sanitizing your hands," they write. Wash your hands after you're at home, as well as after unpacking food. Washing hands correctly means using soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Let It Sit

Even though the risk is low, it doesn't hurt to let bags sit in the garage or mud room before bringing inside. "Because of the limited ability of coronavirus to survive on surfaces, the easiest way to minimize risk of infection from foods purchased at a store or delivered to your home is just let it sit in an out-of-the way place for three days," says the Harvard School of Public Health. "This won't work for foods that need immediate refrigeration or freezing, and they can be treated like fresh produce."

Follow Food Safety Steps

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends four steps for safely dealing with food: Clean hands, surfaces, and food; separate foods to avoid cross-contamination; cook to the right temperature; and chill perishable foods in the refrigerator or freezer. "Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. Like other viruses, it is possible that the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces or objects. For that reason, it is critical to follow the four key steps of food safety—clean, separate, cook, and chill."

Do Your Part

We are all co-dependent in the grocery store and you need to do your part, too, to be a positive part of the shopping equation. Think of yourself as an active part of the solution. Follow these guidelines to ensure you're doing what you can to minimize the spread.

  • If you are sick, do not go out.
  • Offer to shop for those over 60 or with underlying health conditions on your own trip to the grocery store, and make sure to respect new rules. Some stores have set aside special hours for seniors to shop.
  • Be aware of your distance to others in the store, not only for your sake, but for theirs as well. It may feel awkward at first, but keep at least six feet apart as you enter, shop, or wait in line.
  • Keep yourself well and practice good hygiene. The ultimate self-care is washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds—especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

Check Regularly for Updated Guidance

Keep up to date on the latest information by checking these websites:

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