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Grocery shopping during the coronavirus: Wash your hands, keep your distance and limit trips

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This post has been updated.

Food is an essential, so even with calls for “social distancing” because of the coronavirus pandemic, no one is suggesting that we stop shopping for groceries.

Still, we know that we should limit our exposure to other people to help slow the spread of the virus. So, what steps can we take to shop with peace of mind?

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The advice is the same as for any time spent outside the home: Limit contact with groups of people, wash your hands as soon as you get home and avoid touching your face, said Bettina Fries, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook University in New York.

People should go to the grocery store — or anywhere outside the home — only if they are feeling well and reasonably confident that they have not been exposed to the virus causing covid-19.

How to buy groceries and food safely during the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

Watch for symptoms in yourself and others in your household. They may include mild to severe respiratory illness with difficulty breathing, as well as fever and a cough. If you are concerned that you may have been exposed, self-quarantine. And, remember that the incubation period is from two to 14 days. That’s why it is important to avoid being in large crowds. People may be infected but not know yet.

Who shouldn’t grocery shop?

Some people may be at higher risk for getting seriously ill from this virus, including older adults and people who have chronic health conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of this, grocery stores across the country have been offering “seniors-only” grocery shopping times.

The biggest advantage to those special shopping times is that there should be fewer people in the stores, Fries said.

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“…If you belong in that group of people who are 65 or older, or immune compromised, then it is best to get someone else to shop for you, if you can,” Fries said. Along with asking family or friends to shop, she also recommends having groceries delivered.

Many delivery services offer no-contact drop-off, as well as electronic tipping. Such services are in high demand right now, so stay on top of your supplies and try to order a week or so before you have a need.

How often should go to the grocery?

Make less frequent and larger shopping trips. “It’s good to go once or twice a week” at the most, Fries said.

There’s no need to take every can of black beans off the shelf for your household of four, but, if you can afford to, buy enough food to last for two to three weeks. Buy and enjoy fresh foods now and stock up on dried spices and fruits, eggs, hard cheeses, shelf-stable cans and packaged goods, as well as frozen meat, vegetables and fruit. This may mean you won’t have the freedom to satisfy every craving, but you’ll have the sustenance you need.

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What time should you shop?

The natural rhythms of your neighborhood grocery may have shifted because more people are working from home, but, generally, it is best to shop early in the morning and later at night to avoid crowds. Some U.S. chains have begun limiting the number of people who can be in the store at one time and cutting store hours, so employees have time to clean and restock. If you arrive and the store is jammed, come back another time if you can.

“You want to avoid being in Costco with 200 people in a line,” Fries said. “You are not social distancing if you stand in a line with other people.”

Should you wear gloves? A mask?

At the start of the pandemic, the CDC and other experts were not recommending that shoppers wear gloves or masks. In April, the White House began recommending face masks be worn in public.

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Jeremy Howard, a distinguished research scientist at the University of San Francisco, wrote in an opinion piece in The Post: “It’s time to make masks a key part of our fight to contain, then defeat, this pandemic. … We should all wear masks — store-bought or homemade — whenever we’re out in public.”

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There has been no change in recommendations from experts on gloves while grocery shopping.

“Gloves don’t really protect you because … it sticks to the gloves the same way it sticks to your hands,” Fries said. “It’s not different.”

Touch as little as possible as you shop. Most stores provide free wipes, but if they don’t, bring your own to wipe down the cart handles and use them to open freezer doors.

Experts do advise shoppers to wash their hands before they shop and immediately after they shop. And, they remind shoppers not to touch their faces, and try to stay at least six feet away from other shoppers and store employees.

What to do when you get home with the groceries?

When you return home from any outing, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before eating or preparing food. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. After unpacking your groceries, wash your hands again and it is always a good idea to  wash kitchen surfaces, such as countertops, any handles or switches, often.

The good news about food safety and coronavirus: It’s the same advice we’ve known all along

If it gives you peace of mind, wipe down cans and boxes with soap and water or disinfectant wipes before putting them away, but experts do recommended washing packaging before storing them. The CDC updated its “How Covid-19 Spreads” page to note that “spread from touching surfaces is not thought to be a common way” the virus is transmitted.

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The virus is not food-borne, experts said.

“We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a Feb. 27 statement. The FDA recommends following the usual best practices for health and safety rules for handling food, such as cooking foods to their proper temperature and washing produce thoroughly.

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“You’re not going to eat the can,” Fries said of packaged foods. “As long as you wash your hands, you’ll be okay.”

She emphasized that washing your hands and frequently touched surfaces is the key: “You can wash the virus off with just soap and water.”