For a lot of people right now, going to get groceries and toiletries is the only thing we leave our homes for. And as we’re trying to maintain quarantine, disinfecting each and every item we bring home has also become the norm.
With the Covid-19 pandemic still in full swing and ~50,000 confirmed deaths in the U.S. alone, such precautions seem obvious. But do virologists and other infectious disease experts agree that disinfecting all groceries is necessary?
According to a lot of specialists such as Angela Rasmussen from the Center of Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, disinfecting your groceries is not nearly as important as maintaining social distancing in the store itself.
“While it is possible to contract the virus [from contaminated surfaces], the majority of transmission is probably going to be from respiratory droplets, which you’re exposed to when you’re around other people.”
Food microbiologist and professor at Rutgers University Donald Schaffner also agrees. He adds that it’s more important to look for grocery stores that limit the number of shoppers they let in so that maintaining social distancing in the store is more manageable. While it may be tempting to go to a store with no line in front of it than to one with 20+ people waiting, if the second one has fewer people inside, that’s the safer option.
Being careful inside the store is also crucial, according to the Rutgers University professor.
“Be as efficient as possible in the store,” Schaffner says. “Have a list. Move through the store quickly and efficiently. Get out of the way. Be respectful of other people. Maintain social distance while you’re in the store.”
Don’t go overboard with disinfecting your groceries
While it is possible to get infected by a virus that’s on the corner of a cereal box or another item from the grocery store, experts agree that the likelyhood of that happening is minimal. More importantly, a more efficient way to protect yourself is to simply follow good hygiene basics and wash your hands after you unpack the groceries, before and after cooking, and before eating. Disinfecting your hands after leaving the store is also smart. If you do this regularly, disinfecting every single grocery item won’t be necessary.
“Time is really on your side here,” says Dr. Aronoff. “After 24 hours, the vast majority of the virus is no longer infectious.” After 72 hours, he adds, the virus is usually undetectable on most surfaces. So, especially when it comes to groceries that you know you’re not going to use or touch for a while, disinfecting them is simply unnecessary.
What seems to be much more important is disinfecting the countertop where you’ve unpacked all the groceries as well as the door handles, water taps, and light keys you’ve touched in the meantime.
On the other hand, a lot of people think that freezing their items overnight eliminates the virus – that is NOT the case so remember to take precautions regardless of whether your groceries have been in the freezer or not.
Use Soap and Water
Another tip from the professionals is that if you do want to disinfect your packaged groceries, using disinfectant sprays or wipes is not better than using soap and water. That’s both because 1) most food items can be damaged by disinfectant sprays through their packaging and 2) soap and water is just as effective.
Dr. Schaffner also adds that “There’s just no evidence that these foods can transmit the virus or can cause COVID-19.” So, washing them only brings the risk of ingesting soap residue afterward.
As for showering after each trip to the shop, there are different opinions.
“I personally don’t like to do a full de-con [de-contamination] when I get home from the store,” Rasmussen says. “I wash my hands. I’m not routinely putting my face and mouth all over my clothing.”
She does note that people in the risk groups or people with children might want to consider taking a shower and throw their clothes in the washing machine.
“People with small children might consider otherwise, since kids — especially little kids — are maybe not so concerned about where they put their mouths or their hands.” She concluded that it’s a matter of personal preference. “If you feel more comfortable changing clothes and taking a shower after you come back from an essential errand, then by all means do so,” she says.
Face masks are indeed vital
Lots of contradictory things were said about face masks in the last couple of months but eventually, most specialists agreed that protecting your face with whatever face mask you have at your disposal helps.
Yes, N95 and other quality face masks work better but the CDC has confirmed that even DIY cloth face masks can reduce the number of airborne water droplets that we inhale and exhale. This is of great importance as it helps not only protect you from the disease but protect others as well.
Go out alone whenever possible
“Family shopping” is something a lot of people enjoy but now is not that time for that. All specialists agree that going to the store alone is a much better idea than washing your groceries but having shopped with your whole family.
Dr. David Aronoff from the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center says that “If you have three people living together and all three people go to the store, even if all three people have a low risk of getting infected at an individual level, as a group they’ve tripled their risk, essentially.”
Dr. Aronoff recently wrote a paper on safe food practices during the pandemic in the JAMA medical journal.
Disinfect your hands, cart, and shopping bag
Many stores quickly adopted the good practice of sanitizing their customers’ hands and cart handles at the entrance of the store.
Still, it is a good idea to also always bring a hand sanitizer or wipes with you. Dr. Rasmussen also adds that it’s best to make sure you’re not touching your phone while you’re in the store or outside in general. First, because the “phone is a great way to get your hands right up next to your face,” and second because you want to keep your phone as clean as possible anyway.
Gloves are mostly just plastic waste
Plastic gloves may protect your hands but they don’t protect your face. Touching your face, phone, keys, wallet, or groceries with a contaminated glove is the same as touching them with a contaminated hand. Simply sanitizing your hands regularly is a much better idea.
“Gloves are not magic,” Dr. Schaffner says. “Gloves don’t make you invulnerable. As soon as you touch something with your gloved hand, that contamination is on the gloves.”
Dr. Rasmussen also agrees – “I’ve seen a lot of people wearing gloves out in public, and they just kind of wear them all day and do a lot of normal activities, like talk on their phone, potentially eat, potentially handle food that they’re going to eat later with those gloves on,” she says. “And that’s not a great practice.”
Rachel Graham, a virologist at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health also advises people who do wear gloves to remember to at least remove them properly.
“The best way to remove gloves that might be contaminated is to basically grab them from the inside on your palm side and pull them out like you’re pulling off a sock, so you end up turning them inside out.”
One of the few benefits of wearing gloves is that if you have sensitive skin on your hands and it gets irritated from all the hand sanitizer, sanitizing your gloves instead can protect your skin. Aside from that, however, they are mostly just a waste of plastic.
Protect the cashiers as you protect yourself
Most shops have installed plastic or glass shields in front of their cashiers but even then it’s still important to make sure you keep a safe distance from them for both your sakes.
Not only is it kind to protect them as they one of the several professions who still have to work with people every day but it’s also best for everyone else to make sure that cashiers are as healthy and safe as possible.
As for self-checkout machines – they can be a good alternative as long as there isn’t too much of a crowd around them. If the line at the cashier is shorter and social distancing is easier to maintain there – that should be the better option.
Opt for no-touch payments whenever possible
It’s still unclear exactly how long the Covid-19 virus survives on surfaces such as wallets, cash, coins, and credit cards but we do know it’s a long time. So, picking the payment method with the least physical contact and touches possible is the safest way to go about it.
However you pay, sanitizing your hands and card after a transaction is obviously vital.
Is ordering online safe?
Getting your groceries delivered makes it a better idea to disinfect them as you don’t know who or how they were handled. On the other hand, this is the ultimate social distancing option as it eliminates the risk of direct airborne transmission.
So, it’s overall a good idea. Just remember to leave a tip for the delivery guy/gal as they are not only doing the work but also putting themselves at risk throughout the whole day to keep you safe!