How to protect yourself from the coronavirus at the grocery store

A shopper and cashier both wear masks, gloves and the cashier also has on a plastic visor at the checkout station Pat’s Farms grocery store on March 31, 2020 in Merrick, New York.

Al Bello | Getty Images

With most Americans living under-stay-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic, trips to the grocery store are one of the few reasons people can venture out. However, with the virus continuing to spread, many may wonder how they can best protect themselves from getting sick if they do need to go shopping.

Consumers should first evaluate their own risk level for catching the virus before deciding to visit a grocery store, according to Karen Hoffmann, a registered nurse and the immediate past president of The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

Those who are highly immunosuppresed, have cancer, are on certain medications or are over the age of 65, should consider other options such as buying online or having someone else shop for them, according to Hoffmann.

Before visiting the store, shoppers should also have a solid plan of what they’re going to buy and prioritize what they they need.

“People should try to think in terms of buying at least two weeks’ worth so they can minimize the number of trips that they’re actually taking to the grocery store,” Hoffmann said. 

Leave the kids at home

If possible, children should not be taken on shopping trips and should remain at home.

“We don’t recommend bringing children because they will touch everything and increase the risk of exposure to them, and ultimately to their caregivers,” Hoffmann said. 

In order to best protect themselves from COVID-19 while at the grocery store, shoppers should first understand how the virus spreads, according to Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University.

“It is transmitted by respiratory droplets and by contact,” Racaniello said of the coronavirus. “When you talk or cough or sneeze, you spray very small droplets out of your respiratory tract.”

He said that people can become infected when these droplets become lodged in the upper respiratory tract or when someone handles something contaminated with the virus and then proceeds to touch their mouth, nose or eyes.

In order to avoid breathing in droplets, both Hoffmann and Racaniello advise shoppers to practice social distancing and maintain distances of six feet apart from other people. When engaging with others, shoppers can turn their heads and not directly face the other person, Hoffmann added.

“Simply diverting your attention from one another can make a difference,” she said.

What about masks and gloves?

While there has been national debate over the usefulness of masks, Hoffmann said the benefit of wearing one varies based on its quality.

“You don’t want to be overly reliant on a mask that gets damp and may actually collect pathogens,” she said. 

Hoffmann said that it’s difficult for homemade masks to replicate the filtering ability of those worn by health care workers, but they may be useful when worn by people who are infectious. 

“Because we do have so much asymptomatic spread, people wearing a mask, who may be infected or mildly infected — it could contain their droplets,” Hoffmann said. 

She added that masks should always be put on and taken off with clean hands in order to prevent cross-contamination. 

As for gloves, they can do more harm than good, according to Hoffmann.

“You can think about wearing gloves, but unless you’re really experienced with putting gloves on and off, you may actually contaminate your hands more and therefore get a false sense of security,” Hoffmann said.

During a grocery trip, shoppers should think about what they touch in the store. Hoffman advised wiping down the handle of a shopping cart before holding it. Racaniello said one of the riskiest moments during a shopping excursion is paying at the cash register.

“You go to check-out, you give your credit card, put it in a slot, you punch the numbers, you sign that little machine — that in particular, a lot of people have touched,” he said.

Racaniello said shoppers should avoid touching their faces after using a credit card machine and even use a hand sanitizer immediately after. 

Take off your shoes when you get home

After arriving home from a trip to the grocery store, the first thing Racaniello does is remove his shoes. He said that after lingering in the air, droplets containing the virus fall to the ground, where they can be picked up by feet.

“If you have kids, they may crawl on the floor and so forth, so you don’t want to track those into your house,” Racaniello said of the viral particles.

The next step is to engage in extensive hand-washing.

“The sooner you can get to the sink and wash your hands with soap and water, the better,” Racaniello said.

He also recommends wiping down groceries with an alcohol-based spray once they’re brought inside as the virus typically lives for 24 hours on plastic and cardboard surfaces.

Washing fruits and vegetables 

Hoffman fills her sink with water and adds a small cup of vinegar in order to wash her fruits and vegetables after purchasing them. She did this even before the pandemic, as it helps kill fungus and keeps produce from deteriorating.

“Fruits and vegetables, I always clean anyways just because they come from so many different places around the world, and they’re handled by so many people,” Hoffmann said. 

While some of these practices may seem extreme, Racaniello said, people have to be prepared to change their behavior.

“You have to look at life in a different way than you did before, at least for the time being,” he said.

Steps stores are taking 

Shoppers can also take comfort in the fact that grocery shops are taking extra steps to protect their customers, according to Laura Strange, senior vice president of communications and external relations at the National Grocers Association, which represents more than 8,000 stores in the U.S.’s independent supermarket industry. 

She said that members of her organization are implementing new measures such as installing plexiglass shields at cash registers, closing down hot food bars, offering hand sanitizer to customers and packaging bakery items that are usually loose in bins, such as fresh doughnuts and pastries.

Supermarkets are also adjusting their product ordering to meet increasing demand from customers who are bulk-shopping.

“We talked to a number of members who have been in the industry for over 30 years and they had never had that type of surge in store traffic,” Strange said. 

Dionicio Liz Jr., owner of Associated Supermarket in Brooklyn, New York, and a board member of the National Supermarket Association, said he has made several important changes in his store to help prevent people from getting sick.

All of his employees now wear masks and gloves and he’s seen many of the store’s patrons do the same. He also has a cleaning company come and sanitize the store top to bottom each week, and he installed sneeze guards at the cash registers. Liz encourages social distancing among those waiting in line to pay and now only allows 15 customers in his store at a time, a measure he enacted three weeks ago.

At first, Liz was worried that customers would be annoyed at the new crowd-control measures, but he said they’ve been understanding.

“They’re patient right now waiting outside,” he said. “They understand what’s going on.”