2 experts share advice for safely shopping for groceries during the coronavirus pandemic

By Irene Jiang

Grocery stores are remaining open as coronavirus shuts much of America down. But, just because they're open for business doesn't mean that you should go about your shopping as usual.

To find out exactly what precautions you should take, Business Insider spoke to two experts about how to safely shop for groceries. 

Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña is the director of global health at Northwell Health and an assistant professor at Hofstra University's Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine. Cioe-Peña said that even though grocery stores are considered essential, that doesn't mean people get a pass on social distancing.

"Because people assume that because it's an essential area, they bump into people, they talk to people, they do the whole social thing. But you don't get a pass on social distancing for just being at the supermarket. You still have to avoid people," Cioe-Peña said.

Dr. Jaimie Meyer is an assistant professor of medicine and assistant clinical professor of nursing at Yale School of Medicine. Meyer advised ordering delivery or curbside pickup over going to the grocery store if possible.

"Be sure to tip your delivery person generously," Meyer said. "They put themselves on the line for your carton of ice cream! Ideally, tip electronically so you don't have to exchange cash or handle your credit card or that communal pen. Have the delivery person leave the groceries outside (maybe even leave out a cooler for them to fill) and then bring it inside after they leave."

Meyer emphasized the importance of washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after handling groceries.

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Washing hands once you get home is paramount.
Crystal Cox/Business Insider

Both experts said that in-store, the most vital actions a shopper can take to avoid becoming infected are to avoid others and to wash their hands once they get home. Also important is making sure to sanitize or avoid surfaces that many others may have touched, like shopping cart handles, door handles, and payment machines.

"Try to go during times that are less crowded so you can maintain that six feet of social distance," Meyer said. "If available, wipe down the grocery cart handle with a bleach wipe. If you have to touch high-touch surfaces, like freezer door handles or credit card machines, cover your hand with your sleeve."

"We're still asking people to maintain six feet of social distance," Cioe-Peña said. "People are worried about getting it from their food and that's just not a viable mechanism of getting it."

Even if someone sneezes directly into your food, you won't get the virus from eating the food. 

"There is still no evidence that food or food packaging is associated with disease transmission," Meyer said, citing the CDC, which currently does not recommend wiping down each individual grocery product.

But Meyer still advises washing hands frequently while dealing with recently purchased food and wiping down any high-contact surfaces, like counters, as the virus can live on certain surfaces for as long as several days. Meyer also said that experts still don't know how the virus reacts to the temperatures inside refrigerators and freezers.

Cioe-Peña, on the other hand, recommends setting up a sanitation area for groceries and wiping down each individual product with soap and water.

"When people get home, they should make sure they're wiping down the containers, and outside packaging of everything that they bought before they put it away," Cioe-Peña said.

He uses a mudroom in his home for this purpose, wiping each container with soap and water before bringing it inside. 

"It's probably a little overkill, but there are viral fomites — surfaces where the virus can live — and the virus especially seems to like plastics and metal. So I think it's important for plastic containers that have been handled at the supermarket by other people to get wiped down before they get put in your house," Cioe-Peña.

Regardless of which approach shoppers decide to take, the virus can only be transmitted through surfaces if they touch an infected surface, then touch their face. Shoppers should always wash their hands after handling newly bought groceries, regardless of whether they've disinfected the groceries themselves. Meyer also recommends wiping down your phone if you've used it to text or to look at a grocery list while in the store.

And, Meyer added: "Don't hoard the toilet paper! Remember, we're all in this together — your neighbor needs toilet paper, too."