“I“I have to go to the grocery store later, and I feel like Sandra Bullock in Bird Box,” a friend wrote this week. The Covid-19 outbreak has turned mundane shopping runs into the stuff of horror movies, and in response, a literally viral video featuring a scrubs-clad doctor would have us do everything short of wearing a hazmat suit to Whole Foods. Although knowledge of this new coronavirus is evolving quickly, here’s what infectious disease and food safety specialists say are the truly important steps to take (and where that video got it wrong).
Before you go
First consider whether you should go. Ideally, people at the highest risk of severe Covid-19 —people age 65 or older, the immunocompromised, and those with severe chronic medical conditions — should avoid crowded public places like grocery stores, says Tim Lahey, MD, an infectious disease physician and director of clinical ethics at the University of Vermont Medical Center. Anybody with flu symptoms absolutely should stay home, and if you are coughing, some stores may politely ask you to leave.
“The goal is to get in and out as efficiently as possible.”
Not you? Consider helping an older, infirm, or immunocompromised neighbor stock up. Just please don’t hoard for fear of a food shortage: Empty shelves are a temporary result of panic buying, not evidence of a problem with the food supply chain, according to the FDA and the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Because social distancing means spending as little time as you can in close proximity with other people, trips should be as few and as short as possible, says Ben Chapman, PhD, a professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.
Ordering online for curbside pickup or delivery is ideal — stores are rapidly adding these services, so check with yours even if it didn’t offer curbside pickup last week. If you go to the store, Chapman notes, go alone if at all possible.
Make a list. “The goal is to get in and out as efficiently as possible,” says Don Schaffner, PhD, distinguished professor of food microbiology at Rutgers University. It’s smart to go when foot traffic is light or to shop at stores that are limiting customers. (Although this can be counterproductive if you find yourself in a crowded line waiting outside the door.) And wash your hands before you go.
At the store
Take a deep breath and know that there is no evidence that the coronavirus spreads through food. And because of the poor survivability of coronaviruses on surfaces, the risk for getting sick from touching food or food packaging is also very low, the CDC reports. “The epidemiology does not suggest that foodborne transmission is a big deal with Covid-19. Rather, coughs, sneezes, and hand-to-hand transmission are the big concerns,” Lahey says.
Thus, the biggest risk at grocery stores is not food — it’s other people. Keep at least a cart’s distance between you and other shoppers. None of the experts interviewed wear gloves to the store, in part to protect the supply for medical workers and in part because proper hand-washing can provide the same protection. In theory, wearing gloves might help you be more mindful about what you touch. But in practice, few of us know how to handle them properly, creating a risk for transmission. “It’s the hand-to-face piece of the sequence, which gloves do little to counteract, that we think leads to infection,” Lahey explains. As for masks, the official CDC advice is still not to wear one, because they need to be available for medical workers and caregivers. But keep an eye on those recommendations, because things are developing fast.
Wiping down your cart handle is a good idea, because it’s such a high-touch area; use a disinfecting wipe that is labeled for use on hard surfaces. Sanitizing your hands before touching a surface does not protect them. And this is not a time to be squeezing the melons: Touch only the food that you intend to buy.
That said, buy whatever food you like in whatever packaging it comes in. Yes, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the coronavirus remains viable for less time on cardboard than plastic — but finding the virus on a surface is not the same thing as proving those germs can make people sick, Chapman says.
Take a deep breath and know that there is no evidence that the coronavirus spreads through food.
Because people-to-people contact is what matters, avoid open salad bars or any station with shared utensils, Lahey says. It’s fine to get food at the deli — workers behind the counter are trained in careful food-safety practices to avoid germs like listeria, and those measures should also help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
At checkout, stay distant from the clerk and other customers — Chapman suggests keeping a wide berth in line and paying with your phone or a credit card rather than exchanging cash. Self-checkout isn’t better or worse, he adds, since you’ll have to deal with the high-traffic touchpad. Wipe it down if you can.
Above all, be kind to grocery workers. “They are out there exposing themselves so that we can have food,” Schaffner says. “They are right now a critical part of the infrastructure, and they can’t afford to get sick.”
When you get home
That viral YouTube video suggested a long list of precautions to take when unpacking your groceries, including leaving food in your garage or porch, sterilizing packaging, decanting food into home containers, and nuking it in the microwave to kill germs. But the experts who actually study foodborne illness and infectious disease say they aren’t doing any of this stuff.
Instead, focus on washing your hands. Wash them (20 seconds with soap—you know the drill by now) as soon as you get home, and then again once you’ve put the groceries away, “if you’re still feeling squicked out,” Schaffner says. The CDC recommends washing hands anytime you prepare or eat meals for general food safety, so keep doing that.
Science hasn’t definitively found that reusable bags are a source of foodborne disease, but it’s still a good practice to wash them regularly, especially if they’ve had meat or poultry in them. Spot-clean bags with soap and water, or launder cloth and sturdy plastic bags normally at the hottest setting.
Sanitize the outside of any leaky meat packages with a disinfecting wipe, and wash fruit and vegetables under cold water for 20 seconds. There’s little evidence that produce wash is better than water, though it isn’t harmful—but soap might be! “You’d be breaking the law if you did that in a restaurant,” Schaffner warns. “Just practice normal food safety practices you would do anyway.”