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With communities across the country virtually shut down, there is still one place nearly everyone needs to visit at some point: the grocery store. Experts say deliveries are safer, but sometimes it can be hard to get one scheduled right away. So if you must go to the store, what’s the best way to navigate the aisles and crowds? Information and guidance about the virus is changing quickly, so we asked the experts.
Is it safe to go to the grocery store?
Try to minimize visits to the store. “The biggest risk factor is really being around other people,” says Benjamin Chapman, a professor of food safety at North Carolina State University.
That’s because the novel coronavirus is spread largely through droplets from nearby people coughing or sneezing. If you must go, maintain a buffer around yourself and try to go at off-hours. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a 6-foot buffer, while the World Health Organization says 3 feet will suffice).
It’s hard to maintain a distance from cashiers, so use self-checkout when possible and use hand sanitizer when you’re done.
Should I wear a mask or gloves to the grocery store?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reversed previous recommendations, advising all Americans to wear cloth face masks when out in public, which includes when in the grocery store.
They don’t recommend wearing the N95 respirator masks or surgical masks, which should be reserved for health care workers who are facing a shortage of protective equipment.
Gloves don’t help much if you’re going to touch your eyes, nose or mouth with them. Rather, experts say, wash your hands with soap and water before going out and when coming home, and use hand sanitizer when out. If you use gloves, choose disposable ones and throw them before getting into your car or as soon as you get home (if you’re walking or taking public transportation).
Try not to use your phone when in the store. If you do, clean it when you get home.
Should I bring wipes with me? What should I wipe down?
Dr. Chapman says many grocery stores are providing shoppers with wipes. If not, it’s a good idea to bring your own, mainly to wipe the grocery cart. Just make sure the wipes are on the list registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Wipes can also be used for other high-touch areas in the store like freezer handles or tongs used in self-serve bins.
Any other precautions I should take?
Try to avoid exchanging money or credit cards with the cashier. Use a credit-card reader when possible.
If I’m a senior or have an underlying medical condition, should I try to go to the store during special seniors hours?
People over 65 and those who have medical conditions that put them at greater risk of hospitalization and serious illness should avoid going to the grocery store, if possible. Try to order groceries online or have a family member or friend deliver them while taking precautions. If you must visit the store, go during hours reserved for seniors, when the store is likely to be less crowded.
When I get home, what should I do with any paper or plastic bags or packaging?
Though there have been no documented cases of transmission of the novel coronavirus through food packaging, a recent NEJM study found that the virus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on hard surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel for two to three days. But experts noted that the studies were done in a laboratory with high doses of the virus, so it’s unknown if in real life the virus can be transmitted that way. Most likely if someone were to sneeze or cough on a cardboard container, the virus would degrade more quickly due to environmental factors, such as sunlight.
The study didn’t look at paper or plastic bags. Still, James Lloyd-Smith, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and one of the study’s authors, said if someone else handled the materials recently it’s a good idea to discard them and wash your hands.
But experts say wiping down cereal boxes and other packages isn’t necessary. “Use the wipes when you need them,” says Dr. Chapman. If you’re home you can easily wash your hands. “That’s going to reduce your risk as much if not more than trying to wipe everything down,” he says.
Randy Worobo, a professor of food microbiology at Cornell University, says instead of being preoccupied with wiping down packaging and containers, focus on washing your hands. “It’s much better to treat your hands, wash your hands, rather than dealing with all the surfaces,” says Dr. Worobo.
What about food? Can I get Covid-19 from eating contaminated food?
Your mouth is a gateway to both your respiratory system (your lungs) and your digestive system (stomach). Respiratory viruses like the novel coronavirus are believed to enter the body and reproduce through the respiratory tract, not the digestive tract.
Experts say it is possible that if the virus rubs off from any object to the inside of your mouth, it could infect you if it goes into your respiratory system. But there doesn’t appear to be any risk of infection via your digestive tract, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agriculture Department.
Scientists are still studying the virus, so there is always the chance they could find otherwise. But doctors say getting the virus through ingestion of contaminated food seems unlikely. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minn., speculates that the gastric acid in the stomach would kill it. “My own speculation is that the GI route would be very low likelihood compared to known and efficient methods of infection,” he says.
To be extra cautious, you could heat food in the oven or microwave, though this hasn’t been specifically studied so it’s unclear if there’s a particular length of time needed.
What if someone coughs or sneezes into your food?
If you touch virus particles on raw food and then touch your nose, eyes or mouth, that is a potential source of transmission. But experts note that is very unlikely. To be vigilant, thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, and don’t eat your food with your hands.
Do raw fruits and vegetables need to be washed with anything special?
Experts urge people not to wash fruits and vegetables with anything but water. The chemicals on wipes and chlorine solutions especially can be dangerous—don’t ingest those.
Will my clothes be contaminated when I come back from the store? Do I need to change my clothes as soon as I get home?
There’s no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through clothing, but it hasn’t been specifically studied. The good news is it can be killed by doing laundry. So if you were in a grocery store where people near you were coughing, it’s a good idea to remove your clothes when you get home. Don’t shake clothing. Place it in your laundry hamper. The CDC recommends laundering contaminated clothes in the warmest appropriate water setting and drying them thoroughly.
Can I get the virus from food handlers who don’t wash their hands well after going to the bathroom?
The CDC says there are no known cases of the novel coronavirus being spread through the fecal-oral route, which is a common route of transmission for stomach viruses like the norovirus.
But a recent study that hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet found the virus in the stool of some patients. This route of transmission remains unknown, and experts say it’s unlikely to be contributing significantly to the pandemic.
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