How to safely shop for groceries in a global pandemic

In the last couple of weeks, grocery shopping has gone from an unexciting chore to an epidemiological game of chance. 

In that time, we've learned that community transmission is now responsible for almost half of all new cases, the virus can even survive on cardboard for 24 hours, and that retail workers have tested positive for COVID-19.

All that makes a trip to the grocery store a lot more complicated than it used to be. 

Since New Brunswick declared a state of emergency last week, grocery stores have been among the few retail operations allowed to open.

But experts say there are things shoppers can do to minimize the risk of a trip to the store.

The first thing to remember, said Ottawa epidemiologist Dr. Rama Nair, is that you can't go too far to protect yourself. 

"Things can get completely out of control," Nair said Wednesday. "So when you compare the risks to the benefit, I don't think anything that we are doing so far is extreme."

While scientists are still learning about the novel coronavirus, they've discovered that the virus can survive on a variety of surfaces for as long as 72 hours, according to  a preliminary study in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

And a trip to the grocery store can expose customers to a variety of items that have already been through a number of hands.

Shopping carts

The first order of business is preparing the shopping cart, said Nair. He advises shoppers to use a disinfecting wipe to clean all surfaces that you might touch — particularly the handle, but also the inside of the cart where food items will be placed. 

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Look, don't touch

Nair said shoppers should forgo the ripeness squeeze test — and if you can't stop the habit, put one of the produce bags over your hand to select your items and then dispose of the bag. 

He said people are getting a bit testy in grocery stores now when they see someone handling items and putting them back. While on a recent trip for supplies, he witnessed one woman berate another for handling produce and putting it back on display. The women exchanged heated words, said Nair, but didn't come to blows. 

Produce should be rinsed at home before being put away. While water is better than nothing, for those who want to be hyper-vigilant, he suggests washing with soap and water. As long as you give it a good rinse after, it shouldn't affect the quality of the food, he said.

Packaged items

Again, Nair said it's up to shoppers how far they want to go, but all packaged items should be rinsed with soap and water if possible, but at a minimum, with a Lysol wipe. For those who want to go the extra step, he said to let the items sit for a bit and do another round of cleaning before putting them away.  

Meats

The same goes for packaged meats. Since the problem is with the people handling it and not with the food itself, he suggests cleaning the outside packaging when you get home. Like most grocery cleaning, a wipe is good, but soap and water is better, said Nair.

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At the check-out

Nair said it's important to keep the proper distance from other shoppers while waiting in line, to use debit or credit cards rather than cash, and to realize that it's "not practical" for stores to completely clean the check-out area between customers. 

Those bringing their own cloth bags should wash them when they get home and those using plastic bags from the retailer should throw them out and not reuse them. 

Added precautions

Those wanting to go the extra mile, could wait a full 24 hours before using any of the items purchased, especially if washing with soap and water isn't possible, Nair said.

And, he said, it bears repeating that you should wash your hands often and whenever possible — even after cleaning newly purchased groceries — and to not touch your face unless you're certain your hands are clean. 

Nair acknowledged that the global pandemic has created previously unfathomable measures for people for almost everything they do outside their homes, including grocery shopping. While some may seem drastic, he said, they're necessary to slow the spread of the disease.

"In the end, it's going to spread anyway because we cannot stop it until we get a vaccine or some other way of controlling it," said Nair. "But at least we can slow down the spread, which is the biggest issue right now."