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How to stay safe while shopping and unpacking groceries during the coronavirus pandemic

Of course, a key recommendation from health officials is to go grocery shopping as infrequently as possible, particularly if you’re older than 65 or have a chronic medical condition.

Wearing a cloth mask in the store may reduce your risk of getting infected and reminds others to participate in social distancing.
Wearing a cloth mask in the store may reduce your risk of getting infected and reminds others to participate in social distancing.

Many of us are still a bit confused about the steps we need to take when venturing out to buy food at our local grocery store. What should we do to stay safe while in the store? And what should we do to further protect ourselves while unpacking our food once we get it home?

Of course, a key recommendation from health officials is to go grocery shopping as infrequently as possible, particularly if you’re older than 65 or have a chronic medical condition — two factors known to put individuals at greater risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19. One way to avoid those shopping trips is to order your food online for either home delivery or curbside pickup. The waiting line for such services can be quite long, however. Another option is to shop early in the morning or late at night, when fewer people are likely to be there. Some stores also offer special shopping hours for people in a high-risk category.

Whether you’re in a high-risk category or not, however, you should take precautions while in the grocery store — and when you get home.

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While in the grocery store

The Journal of the American Medical Association  (JAMA) recently published a brief “patient page” of recommendations to help consumers be safer during and after grocery shopping during this pandemic. Here, in list form, are their key recommendations for what to do while in the store:

  • To prevent transmission, maintain at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and other shoppers. [To help shoppers adhere to that six-foot rule, some stores have provided distance markers on their floors. Others also limit the number of shoppers who can be in the store at any one time.]
  • Avoid shaking hands, hugs, or other physical contact.
  • Try to wipe frequently touched surfaces like grocery carts or basket handles with disinfectant wipes, if available. [Some stores have staff waiting at the door to do this for you.]
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • Wearing a cloth mask in the store may reduce your risk of getting infected and reminds others to participate in social distancing.
  • Before leaving the store or while waiting in the checkout line, use hand sanitizer if available.

On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also advises using “touchless” payment (without money, a credit card or a keypad), if possible. “If you must handle money, a card, or use a keypad, use hand sanitizer right after paying,” the agency says.

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While unpacking your groceries

First, wash your hands as soon as you get inside your house. Then start unpacking the food.

Fortunately, there’s little evidence that the coronavirus stays active on food packaging for more than 24 hours, as both the JAMA article and the CDC website point out.

“Time is on your side,” the JAMA article states. “… Virus on the surface of groceries will become inactivated over time after groceries are put away.” It’s also highly unlikely that the inner contents of any sealed containers are contaminated, the article adds.

But you should take precautions.

“If using a disposable grocery bag, discard it once you are home,” the JAMA article advises. “Reusable bags can be stored for later use. After unpacking your groceries, wash you hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Wipe surfaces with household disinfectants registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Neither the JAMA article nor the CDC recommends disinfecting the packaging on food products before putting them away. But “if you consume food soon after unpacking your groceries, be sure to practice good hand hygiene before eating,” the JAMA article adds.

As for fresh fruits and vegetables, no special care is needed. Just wash and clean them before preparing and eating them as you would at any other time.

FMI: You can read JAMA’s tips on the journal’s website. You’ll find the CDC’s recommendations on its website.