- Staying safe and healthy is top of mind for people around the world as they make necessary trips to the grocery store.
- While it's naturally a place where shoppers are in close quarters, you can still take preventative measures and keep yourself safe while shopping.
- Insider spoke with three food safety and biology experts and gathered their tips for keeping yourself safe while purchasing groceries.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Lockdowns are going into effect across the country closing down restaurant dining rooms and public spaces, but essential businesses remain open — which includes grocery stores.
As consumers navigate different guidelines and safety precautions, making a necessary trip to the grocery store can seem like a daunting, germ-filled journey.
Insider turned to three food safety specialists and biology experts — Dr. Ben Chapman, professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University; Tamika Sims, PhD, director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation; and Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman, author and professor of biology at William Paterson University — to get their take on how to best protect yourself when grocery shopping.
The No. 1 defense is washing your hands properly
Each expert agreed that the best way to keep yourself safe against the novel coronavirus — and germs in general — is to wash your hands often and properly (with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds) and to try not to touch your face.
Wearing latex or plastic gloves can be useful, but Dr. Wahrman, who has written an entire book on the importance of hand-washing, said they're only effective if you know how to use them correctly. Both Dr. Wahrman and Dr. Chapman said gloves can also transfer germs just as easily as hands can.
If you have gloves and want to wear them in the store, the experts say it's important to treat them as if they're your hands while wearing them, don't touch your face, and sanitize often.
Avoid peak hours
All three experts we spoke with emphasized that it's important to stay distanced — six feet or more — from other shoppers.
In reality, that's a lot easier said than done. Try giving your market a call beforehand to see what their busiest hours have been and go during the less-busy pockets of the day. Some stores offer special hours for older or otherwise vulnerable customers to shop since seniors and anyone with preexisting conditions are more at risk for contracting severe cases of COVID-19.
Sims and Dr. Chapman both named grocery delivery or curbside pickup as safer alternatives to going inside a store as well, though Dr. Chapman said there is still some risk with these options, too, since the virus can survive on surfaces and scientists believe it's possible to spread this way.
The solution? Wash your hands.
"I bring the bags in, I wash my hands. I unpack or unwrap, and I wash my hands. And then I dispose of those bags and containers, and I wash my hands again," Dr. Chapman told Insider about how to manage delivered goods.
Be aware of high-touch surfaces
Dr. Wahrman warns that you should always be germ-aware. Dr. Chapman laid out the possible high-touch areas in a grocery store: There's the cart or basket, tongs at a hot bar or buffet, scoops or tongs at any self-serve container, and handles in the refrigerator or freezer sections.
If you have your own disinfectant wipes, you can wipe down those surfaces before touching them. If you don't have wipes but you have hand sanitizer, you can use that after touching the surfaces.
Alcohol-based sanitizer is a convenient way to keep clean
Dr. Chapman noted that his market has disinfectant wipes available for customer use, and Sims said some stores even have hand sanitizer at the entrance. If your store has these cleaning agents available, make use of them. But it could be helpful to get into the habit of bringing your own personal supply along whenever you leave the house.
You can use the wipes to disinfect the handle of your shopping cart or basket, and you can use the sanitizer to clean your hands any time you touch a high-touch surface.
You can also use sanitizer in between loading your groceries into your car and touching your keys or steering wheel if you're driving to and from the store.
Of course, hand sanitizer isn't a panacea and some kinds are better than others. Even if you use hand sanitizer, you should still be washing your hands.
It's unlikely — but not impossible — that your groceries are carrying the novel coronavirus
"There can be a risk if someone carrying the [novel coronavirus] sneezes or coughs onto your produce and within a short time (hours) you touch it and then immediately eat it," Sims wrote in an email to Insider. "But the chances of all these things occurring are small."
Dr. Chapman and Sims both said that washing fruits and vegetables with cold or warm running water is the best way to clean them once you get home. Sims wrote, "cooking them will also support eliminating live virus."
Insider reported that there have been pieces of advice directing customers to wash their produce with a diluted bleach solution, and some people may think they should wash with soap as they do their hands, but both Dr. Chapman and Sims have said that's actually unsafe.
"[Soap] is not meant for our consumption!" Dr. Chapman said. He said the same thing is true for chlorine sprays or bleach products — they can actually do more harm than good.
All three experts we spoke with said packaging isn't at the top of the list of vessels for novel coronavirus. But both Dr. Wahrman and Dr. Chapman agree that if it gives you peace of mind to wipe down packaging with disinfectant, go for it.
That said, Sims warns that using any disinfectant on food packaging presents a whole other risk of chemicals getting into the food that's packaged.
Dr. Chapman told Insider that instead of disinfecting his food packaging, he chooses to wash his hands each time he touches packaging.
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