By Lauren Bavis – Side Effects Public Media

These days, a familiar place – the grocery store – looks very different. They remain open as essential businesses, even as other stores close. But they’re making accommodations to keep the new coronavirus from spreading. 

A recent trip to my local Kroger in Bloomington, Indiana, isn’t like my standard weekly trip. I usually shop on Sunday afternoons, but I’m here on a Tuesday morning. Like many new remote workers, I have flexible shopping hours now. This is also the first time I’ve been to the store in two weeks. 

At the entrance I see signs telling customers to keep at least six feet apart. Health experts say that’s a safe distance to keep the coronavirus from spreading person-to-person. Announcements over the loudspeaker urge me and the other customers to frequently wash our hands or use hand sanitizer. Some shoppers wear face masks.  

Recently, Kroger installed plexiglass partitions between cashiers and customers. And stickers on the floor show shoppers how far apart we should stand in the checkout line.   

Kroger isn’t the only grocery chain making changes. Target cashiers won’t use customers’ reusable bags, though the bags are OK at self-checkout.  

Walmart employees will have their temperatures checked before they start work, because a fever is an early symptom of COVID-19, the disease the new coronavirus causes.

Most stores, including Aldi and Costco, have specific hours for shoppers more likely to contract the virus, like seniors and people with underlying health conditions. 

“I would really recommend anyone who’s in that high-risk vulnerable population to try and get someone else to shop for you, if possible,” says Shandy Dearth, a lecturer at the Fairbanks School of Public Health at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. “Or use some of that grocery delivery service options that are out there now.” 

Dearth has more than 20 years of experience in public health. She says there are simple precautions for shopping trips.  

“It wouldn’t hurt for you to wash your hands before you leave your house … just in case you’ve got anything in your house you’re not aware of. You also don’t want to spread it to your neighbors at the grocery store,” says Dearth. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Robert Redfield said in an interview that as many as 25 percent of people infected with the virus may not have symptoms.

“Once you’re in the grocery store, make sure you’re wiping down the cart, don’t touch anything you don’t need to touch,” Dearth says. 

But Dearth’s advice is easier said than done. People are unlearning years of grocery shopping habits.  

Melissa Ocepek has been spending a lot of time thinking about grocery stores. She’s an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, and she studies how people use information in their everyday lives, including in grocery stores

“Being in a grocery store is a comfortable space. They’re designed to encourage you to spend a lot of time in them,” Ocepek says. “People like to take their time. They like to look at their options. They’d like to taste, touch, smell and experience the food that they’re going to be purchasing and eventually cooking and eating.”

And many stores have become a place to hang out. To grab a coffee or lunch, or even work using free Wi-Fi. Ocepek says her local grocery store also has a bar, a cafe and a large open space for eating.     

“Even if it’s considered a chore for [shoppers], it’s something that gets them out of the house,” she says. “It’s something that lets them interact with their neighbors, lets them interact with their community.”

But that person-to-person interaction is mainly how the virus spreads. Recent studies also found the virus can live on surfaces for hours – or even days. But that doesn’t mean the items you buy at the store are unsafe, says Tamika Sims, a food safety expert with the International Food Information Council.

“The probability of live virus being on the outside of packages is very small,” she says. “Of course I’m saying small. I’m not saying zero.”

Sims says you don’t need to wipe down your groceries with cleaning products before putting them away. “Right now, FDA and [World Health Organization] and CDC are not recommending that anyone do that because you’re creating an additional safety hazard by wiping down packages with chemicals.”

Instead, Sims says, after shopping and putting away groceries, just wash your hands again. She says the safest thing shoppers can do is continue practicing good hygiene. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before going into the store. And don’t touch your face while in the store.

The CDC recently changed its recommendation on masks. It now says even healthy people should wear cloth masks in public, especially in areas where social distancing is difficult, like the grocery store.

“Some of this, it’s a best guess for a lot of us because we just haven’t been through an outbreak of a coronavirus like this,” Death says. “We’re learning more and more each day. So again, guidelines might change.”

And be sure to keep six feet apart from other shoppers, including in checkout lines. 

Tips for safe shopping at the grocery store

  • Don’t go to the store if you’re sick. If you’re more likely to get sick, try to find someone to shop for you, or use grocery store pickup or delivery services.
  • Before leaving for the store, wash your hands and use a disinfectant to wipe down door knobs, car handles, your steering wheel and other frequently touched surfaces. 
  • Before going into the store, use a disinfectant wipe to clean your shopping cart handle and use hand sanitizer with greater than 60% alcohol.
  • Try not to spend a lot of time in the store, and touch only what you need to touch. Write a list of items you need on a piece of paper you can throw away or recycle as you leave the store.
  • You can still talk to other shoppers and store employees, but try to keep six feet of distance between yourself and others, including in the check-out line.
  • The CDC now reccomends people wear should wear cloth face masks in public places where social distancing is difficult, like grocery stores. People should not purchase surgical masks or N-95 respirators, as the CDC says those are critical supplies that should be reserved for health care workers.
  • Don’t touch your face while shopping. You can also continue to use hand sanitizer while you shop. 
  • Stock up on food and other items to limit shopping trips, but don’t hoard or panic-buy things like toilet paper. Fresh and canned foods can have high nutritional content, and canned items will last longer in your pantry. 
  • After you leave the store and come home, put away your groceries and wash your hands. The virus is thought to primarily spread through respiratory droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze, not from object to person. So you don’t need to wipe down or wash groceries with cleaning products, and you shouldn’t have to wash your clothes after shopping. 

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Top photo credit: Then and Now Photography for Wausau Pilot and Review
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