So you’ve canceled your Thanksgiving travel plans, quarantined the college student and created a scaled-back, family-only holiday menu. Good job.
Now you just need to tackle the food shopping.
The crush of grocery store shoppers on the days leading up to Thanksgiving can be maddening in the best of times, but it’s especially stressful this year. The coronavirus is raging around the country, and many communities are imposing new restrictions and closings.
The good news is that everyone has learned a lot about how to safely navigate a grocery store in the months since coronavirus lockdowns first started.
“People have been shopping throughout the pandemic,” said Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech and one of the world’s leading experts on airborne disease transmission. “There’s no evidence that grocery shopping has led to large outbreaks or a significant amount of transmission.”
We talked to Dr. Marr, other public health experts and store officials about the safest way to shop amid a new wave of infections. The bottom line: Wear a well-fitting mask the entire time, avoid close contact with other shoppers, keep the trip short and wash your hands.
Most people catch the virus by spending extended time with an infected person in an enclosed space — and the infected person may not have symptoms or know they are contagious. Wearing a mask reduces your risk but doesn’t eliminate it, which is why you shouldn’t linger in the food aisles.
“Don’t count on your mask to be a total blockade,” said Michael Osterholm, a member of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s coronavirus advisory group and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “The time of exposure is really important.”
A 30-minute shopping trip should be relatively safe if you mask up, keep your distance and avoid touching your face, said Dr. Marr. Bring a shopping list, and have substitutes in mind in case the store runs out of an item. Avoid crowded aisles or mobs around the produce bins. Keep your distance from others in the checkout line and at the register.
Dr. Marr notes that the 30-minute time limit is not based on a particular study, but on the work of ventilation experts and other scientists who have analyzed how the virus spreads. “A half-hour seems like about the right time, where hopefully you can get something done, but you’re not putting yourself in a higher risk situation,” said Dr. Marr.
Here’s more advice for navigating holiday food shopping.
Check your store policies.
Many stores have added new restrictions and taken additional precautions for the holidays. Be prepared to wait in line outdoors. Walmart, Wegmans and Kroger, for example, have all said they will limit the number of customers in the store. Many stores have imposed purchase limits on high-demand items, like toilet paper, paper towels, napkins, disinfecting wipes and hand soap. Costco members with a medical condition used to be exempt from wearing a mask; now everyone over the age of 2 must wear a mask or face shield.
Avoid peak shopping times.
Avoiding crowds lowers your risk. It’s best not to shop Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. — that’s been the busiest food shopping time in recent months, according to Google maps data. Grocery stores are least crowded on Mondays at 8 a.m. During a typical Thanksgiving week, Wednesday is the busiest shopping day. Bakeries were most crowded at noon, grocery stores were packed between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and liquor store shopping peaked at 6 p.m.
Some stores are offering senior shopping hours and posting information about the best time to shop to avoid crowds. Wegmans is adding live outdoor cameras at major stores so customers can check online to see how busy the store is before leaving home.
Should I wipe down my cart?
Shopping carts are germy during the best of times, but it’s not essential to clean the cart if you’re careful about not touching your face and washing your hands. Many stores offer sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer at the entrance, or you can bring your own. Some stores sanitize the carts several times a day as part of their regular cleaning procedures. Dr. Marr said she used to wipe down her cart before shopping, but doesn’t do that anymore. “I just try to pay attention to not sticking my hands and fingers in my eyes, nose or mouth, and washing my hands when we’re done,” she said.
Should I wear gloves?
Gloves are not recommended or necessary if you wash your hands after shopping. In fact, people often contaminate their phone or steering wheel with their gloves, which defeats the purpose of wearing them. Skip the gloves and just wash your hands.
How do I stay safe during checkout?
Grocery store workers are front line workers who come into contact with the masses. One study of 104 workers at a Boston grocery store found that about 20 percent of the workers tested positive, even though the prevalence of the virus in the community at that time was only about 1 percent. Many stores have added clear plexiglass shields to separate employees and shoppers, and adopted regular testing programs for workers. At Wegmans, cashiers are required to clean and sanitize their register belt and station at least once an hour and take a hand-wash break every 30 minutes. At checkout, keep your mask on, limit conversation, opt for contact-free payment (swiping your own credit card) and bag your own groceries if possible to speed things up. Remember, the store workers are facing the biggest risk, so be patient and thank them for their service.
Should I wipe down my groceries?
Many of us spent the early days of the pandemic wiping down groceries, and leaving boxed goods to sit untouched for a few days just in case they were contaminated with the virus. But scientists have since learned that your risk of catching coronavirus from a surface, including food containers, is extremely low. “If it makes you feel better, there’s nothing wrong with doing a quick wipe down with a soapy rag,” said Dr. Asaf Bitton, executive director of Ariadne Labs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The key thing that is necessary is that you wash your hands, really, really well.”
Dr. Marr notes that even if an infected person touched your food items, it’s still your hands that pose the bigger risk of transmission. “If someone has left a blob of virus on the groceries that you have touched, once you’ve touched it, it’s on your hand,” she said. “There’s not going to be lot more that is still there on the yogurt container or milk carton. Between buying it, putting it on the conveyor belt, unpacking it and putting it away, there’s been a lot of chance for it to transfer to your hands, which is why I think washing your hands is important after shopping and putting things away.”
Is my risk of contracting the virus while shopping higher now?
While it may feel like a more hazardous time to shop compared to earlier months of the pandemic, the level of risk varies around the country. Your risk of crossing paths with an infected person is higher when an indicator called the test positivity rate is above 5 percent in your community. In 28 states, test positivity rates were in double digits as of Wednesday, including Wyoming (90 percent), South Dakota (56 percent) and Iowa (51 percent.) By comparison, New York City’s test positivity rate now is hovering around 3 percent, meaning your risk is lower compared to last April, when the rate was close to 70 percent. That said, case counts and test positivity rates are beginning to rise everywhere, which is why everyone needs to take precautions.
To find out how your state is doing, use this chart from Johns Hopkins University. To find the test positivity rate in your local community, check your state or county health department website or try the Covid Act Now website.
Is it safer to have food delivered?
Online shopping and delivery is a lower-risk shopping option if it’s available in your area. Your favorite grocery store probably offers delivery or curbside pickup, or you can use a service like Fresh Direct, Amazon Fresh, Instacart or Peapod. If you prefer the in-person experience, use a delivery service for staples and shelf-stable items for delivery, which will allow you to shorten your time in the store shopping for fresh produce and perishable goods. Wear a mask when accepting the delivery, give your delivery person a generous tip and always wash your hands after unpacking the groceries.
And remember, risk is cumulative. Try to consolidate your shopping to one trip or have part of it delivered. Every new store you visit, every extra shopping trip you make, adds to your risk of crossing paths with the virus.
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