Everything you need to know about grocery shopping during COVID-19

Do you need to disinfect your purchases? Should I wear a mask and gloves? And more questions answered.

In the era of social distancing, grocery shopping is one of the only reasons to leave home right now. COVID-19 has made grocery shopping a logistical minefield: can you touch the packages? Why is that person standing so close? Where is all the toilet paper?

Beyond going to the store, there’s a lot of confusion about what to do when you get home. Do you need to leave purchases outside, or just disinfect them? What about fresh produce?

Here’s what you need to know about grocery shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When should I go grocery shopping?

If possible, go to the store during off-peak hours, like in the morning, to avoid crowds. This makes it easier to maintain the recommended two metres (six feet) of distance between you and other people. Some stores are limiting the amount of shoppers allowed in at once, or marking every two metres along the checkout line so customers know how far apart to stand. The size of the grocery store—whether it’s a small local fruit stand or a big box store—doesn’t really matter as long as they have social distancing measures put in place to keep shoppers safe.

Some grocery store chains, such Loblaws, Longos and Colemans, have reserved times for immunosuppressed and elderly customers to give them a chance to shop with fewer people around. These hours are usually in the early morning, which also helps such shoppers get what they need before they’re sold out for the day.

Make less frequent and larger shopping trips; going to the store once or twice a week is ideal. The idea is to limit your time surrounded by other people. Having a list ready and shopping alone (i.e. without kids in tow, if possible) can help you get the task done faster.

Do I need to wear a mask or gloves? 

Though earlier guidance said that masks weren’t necessary, experts are now advising people who already have masks to wear them—or to make your own. “If you have a mask, you should wear it every time you go outside, whether it’s shopping or anything else,” says Dionne Aleman, a professor at the Institute of Public Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto. “You just make sure both your nose and your mouth are covered at all times.”

This doesn’t mean that you should hoard masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE), however, as there have been shortages of PPE for healthcare professionals working on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Gloves are also a good idea, but they’re a little harder to use perfectly.“You have to be very careful about how you take them off,” cautions Aleman. “And you do have to engage in very thorough hand washing after you take off the gloves.” To take off your gloves properly, you have to make sure your skin does not touch the outside of the glove. Whether they’re reusable or disposable doesn’t matter as long as you’re very careful not to touch your face while wearing them. Gloves also only work if you change them or wash them as often as you wash your hands. Think of your gloves as a second skin that can still transmit the virus if you touch your face and don’t wash your hands.

What do I need to know when I’m in the store? 

It’s a good idea to disinfect the handle of your shopping cart—and any other common surfaces others have touched—when you’re in the store. Some stores are providing disinfectant spray or wipes to customers upon entry. If your local grocery store doesn’t provide disinfectant for you, bring along some hand sanitizer to use after touching common surfaces. If you don’t have any hand sanitizer, don’t forget to wash your hands thoroughly, for at least 20 seconds, once you get home. When you’re browsing the aisles, try to stay two metres away from other shoppers to maintain social distancing guidelines.

You can also bring reusable bags, as long as no one in your household is sick and may have contaminated them. If you do bring your own bags, don’t forget to throw them in the washing machine if they’re machine washable, or disinfect them once you get home.

It’s safe to touch the items up on the shelf—just be mindful about touching your face. “It’s obviously not really practical to […] disinfect every jar of peanut butter that you might pull down to look at, to read its ingredients before deciding if that’s the thing you want to buy,” says Aleman. “But you can and should still disinfect the items that you’ve purchased once you get home.”

“It all comes down to personal behaviours,” says Aleman. “[You need to be] very careful about washing your hands and not touching your face and not allowing any bacteria that you might’ve come into contact with actually gain entry into your body beyond just being on your fingertips.”

How should I pay?

Using contactless payment methods, like tap or Apple Pay (which allows you to tap your phone to the machine), are ideal. If that isn’t an option, there isn’t too much of a difference between paying with cash or using a credit card machine—both require some sort of contact with another person or a surface that has been touched by other people. The same goes for the type of checkout you pick. Though self-checkout is great because you don’t need to interact with a cashier, it also means that you’re touching a common surface.

What do I do with my purchases once I’m home? 

“We’ve seen that the COVID-19 virus can survive under the right conditions on surfaces for up to three days, so if you just leave your stuff alone for a few days, it should be fine,” says Aleman. According to a study by the New England Journal of Medicine, the COVID-19 virus remained more stable on hard surfaces like plastic and stainless steel, and less stable on cardboard.

If you can’t wait, purchases can also be wiped down with disinfecting wipes or a bleach solution to kill anything that might be lingering on it. “If you do a good job wiping it down and you use the appropriate disinfectant, then that’s fine.”

Fresh produce can be washed in the sink by rinsing thoroughly with running cold water and scrubbing the skins with your hands. You may want to avoid the temptation to use soap, as it can cause vomiting and diarrhea if ingested.

What about delivery services? 

If you do choose to use a grocery delivery service, practice the same social distancing measures. Selecting the option that allows the courier to leave your package at the door is usually the safest bet. Planning ahead of time is also useful when ordering delivery: a lot of services are experiencing extremely long wait times and orders can take days to be fulfilled.

There are also ethical considerations to keep in mind when using these services. Tip generously, be forgiving, stay informed about which services’ employees are striking and try not to cross picket lines. It’s also worth doing some research on what your local farmers and vendors are doing; now more than ever, it’s important to support small, local businesses and non-profits. In Toronto, for example, FoodShare’s Good Food Box delivers a variety of local produce and products to its customers weekly.

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