How to Shop for Food Safely During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Just a few smart tweaks to your daily routine are all you need.

With the number of novel coronavirus cases on the rise, heading out to the grocery store (or ordering from a grocery delivery service) to stock up on essentials is a good idea. But at the same time, health experts have encouraged social distancing as an effective way to control the virus’s spread. With all those people in close contact and all those surfaces touched by thousands, how can you ensure your trip to the grocery store is as safe as possible? Is it better to just get groceries delivered, and how can you ensure food deliveries are safe?

Read more: How to Stock Your Kitchen If You're Worried About Coronavirus

To understand the best practices for shopping, ordering, and unpacking your groceries, I spoke to Dr. Robert Amler, Dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and a former CDC Chief Medical Officer who coordinated medical monitoring for anthrax response teams.

How To Shop For Food Safely During The Coronavirus Outbreak
Andersen Ross / Getty Images

First, a Recap of the Basics

The novel coronavirus is not simply flying around the air; it is transferred to others through droplets that come out of the nose and mouth of someone who is infected, usually through coughing or sneezing. That droplet can infect you if it lands on your hands and then you touch your hands to your eyes, mouth, or nose; if it is sprayed directly in your eyes, mouth, or nose, or if it lands on a surface you touch, and you then touch eyes hands or mouth, or if it lands on food you eat.

Before You Leave Home: Wash your hands

Wash your hands with soap and water before you leave your home. When you get to the store, you will be touching lots of surfaces —shopping carts, credit card keypads, and products that many others have touched. But Dr. Amler says before you lose your mind, to remember that most of these surfaces will not be grossly contaminated. “It’s really rare to see people sneezing on produce all day long,” he says. Keep it in perspective. And try not to touch your nose, mouth or eyes while in the store.

Once you have checked out, paid and all groceries are bagged up, he recommends washing or sanitizing hands again before heading home, and trying not to touch your face.

While Shopping: Follow the Six-Feet Rule

If you happen to be in a grocery store and you find yourself near someone coughing or sneezing, Dr. Amler says to move away. “If you are in an aisle where someone is sneezing stay a minimum of six feet away from or go to another aisle,” he says. Dr. Amler says wearing gloves is more a question of your personal comfort zone. “Wearing gloves to the grocery is an extra layer of protection that can be used, in particular if you areat higher risk, but once you have touched things with your gloves and then you touch your face with your gloves, you have defeated the purpose of that protection,” he says. “And it’s really hard not to touch your hands to your face.”

When You Get Home: Wash up Again and Scrub Fresh Produce

When you get home, Dr. Amler says to wash your hands again and to give your produce a good scrubbing in lots of fresh water (soap is not needed). If you are concerned about transmission, or if you are older or in one of the more at risk categories, he says you may consider switching temporarily to frozen fruits and vegetables or packaged goods.

There's No Proven Need to Wipe Down Groceries

“There is no scientific evidence on this point, but an extra measure of caution does not hurt,” says Dr. Amler. “But you don't need to be completely phobic about the whole thing. It’s really a matter of personal preference and precaution.”

Dr. Amler says if you are putting items in storage for use in a week or so, not to bother. “We don't expect the virus to last for weeks at a time; some estimates are up to 9 days but that has not been scientifically proven, so if you are putting it away in storage for a while it won't make a difference.”

How To Shop For Food Safely During The Coronavirus Outbreak
Services like Instacart and FreshDirect are handy. Maybe sometimes too handy?. Ian Allenden / Alamy Stock Photo

How Safe Is Food Delivery?

In terms of accepting delivery into your home, Dr. Amler repeats much of the same advice: wash your hands after you accept delivery and before you eat, and if you are accepting fresh produce, wash it thoroughly. Wipe down containers and anything that has been handled.

Instacart offers no-contact delivery of groceries and other goods, Postmates users are now given options for drop-off that include having the delivery left at the door, and Fresh Direct delivery personnel will only bring your order up to your door, but cannot enter your home, and will not collect reusable bags.

Uber Eats and Grubhub users have always had the ability to make special delivery requests in the “Ordering Instructions” box in the checkout section of the platform, including leaving food at the door, or with a doorman. Diners can also contact their driver directly through the Grubhub app to discuss delivery arrangements as soon as a driver accepts the order.

DoorDash released a statement saying it is “testing enhanced features for contactless delivery to be rolled out shortly.” DoorDash’s "delivery instruction" feature allows requests for food to be left at the door along with a photo of where the food should be left.

At Home, Keep Hands—and Surfaces—Clean

In terms of the virus’ lifespan on surfaces, Dr. Amler says the science is not clear and therefore recommends wiping down surfaces regularly with bleach (not alcohol) and washing hands frequently with soap and water (hand sanitizer is not necessary, but can be used if soap and water are not available).

Yep, Get your Flu Shot

While all of the precautions mentioned here are important, Dr. Amler says the most critical point is to stay healthy. That means getting a flu shot. “We want to avoid [any] respiratory infections,” he said. “We want people to avoid getting sick, so get your flu shot. You want to avoid that just as much as coronavirus and it’s not too late. Even though it’s not perfect, it prevents many flu cases from getting worse.”

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