How To Stock Your Pantry With Reduced Risk…
COVID-19 Groceries describes how to safely carry out an essential activity: acquiring groceries. It builds on the previous blog, which discussed how COVID-19 spreads. The next blog will address a full range of other activities outside the home.
This blog spends considerable time on grocery shopping, because it’s something that we all need to do. However, it’s more broadly useful than that, because the rules for safe grocery shopping provide a framework for engaging in a wide range of activities while avoiding unnecessary risk.
What Is the Safest Shopping for COVID-19 Groceries?
Let’s briefly analyze the level of risk associated with shopping choices.
Shopping By Other People for COVID-19 Groceries
Safest: Online Order and Shipping
This is the safest form of shopping, but not for the reason you might expect. Your merchandise is chosen and packed by someone whom you don’t know. You have no idea whether that person is infected, or follows safe practices. But here’s the salvation: the time elapsed once your order is packed until you receive it. You have probably noticed that rapid deliveries are no more: no one-day or two-day Amazon Prime deliveries, no two-day USPS Priority Mail deliveries. It is not rare for these orders to take a week or more in transit. So by the time a package arrives, whatever virus it might once have carried is long gone.
But of course, this is not a great way to acquire perishables.
Almost As Safe: Shopping By A Friend
If you are concerned about your level of personal risk, one solution is to ask a friend to shop for you. This will presumably be a friend who feels invulnerable, or at least feels safer than you do. Because it’s a friend, you have an ongoing relationship. This means that they are likely to act carefully, for your benefit if not for their own. And presumably this favor is a one-off: they do not spend all day long in grocery stores close to other people, inviting disease.
Not Terribly Safe: Professional Shoppers
Another approach is to hire a shopper to buy your groceries. You benefit from not having to pass close to dozens of strangers during a visit to the store.
The safest shoppers-for-hire are regular store employees. They may shop for you and either deliver to your car, or to your home. These shoppers are safer because the store has a continuing commitment to them, and may require healthy practices. Unfortunately, very few professional shoppers are employees of the grocery store.
Most professional shoppers are independent contractors who work all day long for Instcart, Shipt or a similar service. There’s a price to pay when you use these full-time shoppers: the person who prepares your order spends the day hustling through grocery stores cheek-to-jowl with strangers who may be spewing out virus droplets. He or she is someone you’ve never seen before and probably will never see again. (You are not allowed to request a specific shopper, either from Instacart or Shipt.) And you can’t tell what steps that person has taken to not pick up and pass along a virus. Did they cough on your cucumber or sneeze on your grocery bag? You have no way to know.
Professional Shoppers: Professional Carelessness
Nola and I have acquired COVID-19 groceries using both of the professional shopper services mentioned above. My first reaction was annoyance, that all the shopping slots were filled up, and when we finally were offered a time it was sometimes a week in the future. My next reaction was frustration, because items we wanted were often out of stock, despite what the store claimed on their website. If the shopper had dialogued with us, we might have been able to choose a substitute, but often the shoppers did not bother to ask us what they should buy.
But as I thought more about it, I became concerned about the safety of using professional shoppers. A typical shopper made a few mistakes on each order. They were usually minor, but occasionally stupid: our request for arborio rice was filled with basmati rice; our request for disinfectant spray was filled with dish detergent; and one shopper could not find hominy, because they didn’t know what it was and were too lazy to find out. And then I asked myself: if the shoppers are this goofy and careless, how do we know they are practicing good hygiene?
I studied shopper information from Instacart and from Shipt and I saw nothing about infection-safe practices while shopping. Hygiene may be a concern to some of these shoppers for their own protection, but their employers don’t seem to care very much. Remember, these are gig workers, not employees. The employer takes no responsibility for their health, nor for yours and mine.
Professional Shoppers: Professional Exposure
There’s also the duration of exposure to consider. If I shop for groceries for 45 minutes every two weeks, that’s my time of exposure to people in a grocery store. A professional shopper is working 40 or more hours per week trying to earn a living, spending more than half that time in grocery stores. Therefore in a two week period, instead of 45 minutes, they are spending 40 hours in the stores, more than 50 times as much. If there’s coronavirus floating around in that store, the professional shopper is likely to catch it simply due to total time of exposure. And if your shopper has caught it but is not yet showing symptoms, they may be shedding active viruses onto the groceries they selected for you.
My conclusion was: not only is it inconvenient and inaccurate to use professional shoppers, it may give us increased risk of infection. For a safer approach to COVID-19 groceries, let’s consider Do It Yourself, as follows.
Shopping By Yourself for COVID-19 Groceries
Doing your own shopping can be a very safe way to proceed. But only if you choose the time and place carefully, and properly prepare.
How To Choose A Safe Store
Choose a store with good cleanliness practices. This list happens to match our local Trader Joe’s store, but is not a good description of other groceries in our area (both supermarkets and neighborhood markets):
- The store limits the number of shoppers. An employee at the entrance counts them and when they have reached capacity, requires other arrivals to line up, well-spaced apart.
- The store requires face masks, covering both mouth and nose, on every employee and on every shopper. (If you’re in a store where half the customers, or half the shoppers, have no mask, or a mask only covering their mouth, you don’t belong in that store!)
- The store disinfects every shopping cart, especially the handle.
Layout Minimizes Crowding
Larger stores may have one-way aisles to reduce shopper congestion. They may also have protective panels separating you from the cashier, or have self-checkout available so you don’t need to go near a cashier. In addition, you may see floor markings to encourage six-foot distancing when shopping and while waiting to check out.
Not Many Shoppers
If you are a senior or have any risk factors, choose a store with “senior hours,” usually when they first open for the day. Some (but not all) stores re-stock overnight, so you have the best selection early in the day. And the stores are less crowded at those times. If you don’t qualify for, sorry, “geezer hours,” then pick a time when few shoppers are present. Certainly, avoid shopping on a Friday or Saturday if you can.
How To Follow Safe Practices
Write out a list on paper, preferably sorted by location in the store. This minimizes your time of exposure to other people. Using a disposable paper list saves you from referring to your smartphone while in the store, potentially contaminating it. Bring along, and use, a face mask and a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Bring something to shield or to clean the bottom of the shopping cart, as discussed below.
Prep the Cart
After you’re inside the store, move to one side out of the traffic flow and prep the cart. Sanitize your hands, then wipe the cart handle with your wet hands. If you have a disinfecting wipe, use it to clean the cart handle.
The Bottom of the Cart
The cart bottom also needs your attention.
Surfaces are not a major source of virus infection, as we know from last week’s blog. And a cart bottom is not likely the direct target of an infected person’s sneeze. However, if we’re going to be safe, we might as well make sure that the cart bottom doesn’t contaminate our groceries.
There are many ways to do that:
- Perhaps the store has already sanitized the bottom of the cart.
- If you have a sanitizing spray, you can bring it, along with a few paper towels, and use it.
- If the store allows you to bring in your own bags (some stores do not) you can put your groceries in those, shielded from the cart bottom.
- Bring a section of newspaper that you’re ready to discard, to cover the bottom.
- Bring a drum liner or kitchen bag, either to hold your groceries in the cart, or to lie flat in the bottom of the cart.
- Ask the store for a few paper bags you can use while you are collecting your groceries.
- If none of these other options is available to you, then start shopping by buying non-perishable packaged items that you don’t need to use right away, such as cereal and canned goods. Use those to form a solid surface in the bottom of the cart, then put all your other groceries on top of them. Since you won’t be using the bottom items for a few days, any virus that’s on them will die while they sit on your shelves at home. (If this is your approach, use self-checkout. Scan these items last and bag them separately. When you reach home, let these bags sit for a few days in “quarantine” before you unload them.)
Protect That Produce
If you buy produce that is not already packaged, put each item into one of the store’s disposable plastic bags. If the store doesn’t have such bags, put the items on the protected cart bottom.
Skip the Front Row
The product that you see might have been sneezed on just before you got to it. So reach and select an item that is hidden from view. If you’re shopping from an open refrigerated case, choose the second item in the stack. Try not to paw through everything, because that’s rude, and it doesn’t look safe to other people who may be nearby.
Keep Your Distance
Stay as distant from other shoppers as you can. And if you encounter someone who does not have both mouth and nose covered, avoid them like the plague!
Pay Without Money
Use your credit card or debit card, not cash. If you have a no-touch credit card, that’s even better. If you have to use the keypad, do so, but then sanitize your hands before they get anywhere near your face.
Use That Hand Sanitizer! A Lot!
After you leave the store, park the shopping cart next to your car. Sanitize your hands. Then unlock the car and load it. Then return the cart and sanitize your hands again before you touch your car.
Back At Home
Your groceries are clean. How do you know? Because you chose items that were not visible, therefore they had hours or even days to clean themselves after someone put them on the shelf. They rode through the store without touching a possibly contaminated cart bottom. If you used self-check-out, you bagged them yourself. So you can simply put them away. But if you feel the need to do more, re-read the section What About Infectious Surfaces in the previous blog.