8 Ways To Limit Coronavirus Exposure When Grocery Shopping Or Ordering Takeout

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8 Ways To Limit Coronavirus Exposure When Grocery Shopping Or Ordering Takeout
Health And Wellness

We're at a time in history where nothing will ever be the same, and nothing appears to be safe. The coronavirus pandemic has made our normal lives a continual but essential chore.

A basic necessity like going grocery shopping, or ordering takeout, now feels like a risk that may not be worth taking. But at the end of the day, we need to eat. And because we are creatures of habit, that means ordering food from time to time.

There are plenty of questions people have been asking about going to the grocery store, bringing their belongings home, and having food delivered. And it's important to know the risk you are taking doing any of these things.

Is going to the grocery store more dangerous than having groceries or food delivered?

The short answer: yes.

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According to Rand McClain, D.O., chief medical officer of LCR Health, “You are safer having groceries delivered versus going to the store, in that, anytime you leave the house, you theoretically open yourself up to more opportunity for infection. Any virus can survive better in a living host than on the surface, so by entering a store, you are at higher risk. That said, you should still treat the packaging of goods delivered as a potential threat.”

How should you handle groceries you bring into your home?

Advises Dr. McClain, "Consider wearing disposable gloves when handling the packaging, as the coronavirus appears to be able to survive on cardboard for at least 24 hours, and on plastic for 72 hours. Be thoughtful in either treating the packaging with antiseptic, or removing contents and placing them into a fresh, clean, sanitized container before storing.”

Of course, dispose of potentially infected packaging appropriately and wash your hands afterwards, whether having used gloves or not.

What can you do to protect yourself while at the grocery store?

Do not touch your face, eyes, ears, or mouth while in the store or at home until after groceries are put away, packaging is disposed of or sanitized, and hands are washed.

“Remember that aerosolized virus-containing particles can be a source of infection, so covering eyes with glasses, mouth with a mask, and ears with a scarf can help prevent transmission,” warns Dr. McClain.

These items must be cleaned afterward, keeping in mind that, as a barrier between you and the virus, they may now be infected. So treat them as you would the packaging of food.

What areas of the grocery store should you avoid?

The obvious places for unintentional infection at the grocery store, like salad bars and pastry cabinets, should be avoided. Says Dr. McClain, “While we have no evidence that the virus is being transmitted via food, remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

It's often difficult to determine exact sources of transmission. We cannot be sure if the salad bar has been contaminated, so being near that area puts us at risk of transmission.

Obviously, many of us cannot avoid going to the grocery store for food. That's why it's important to practice proper safety precautions.

Here are a few ways to keep yourself (and others) safe while grocery shopping or ordering takeout.

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1. Opt for grocery delivery.

Why should you get your groceries delivered rather than go to the store?

“This is because you are limiting not only the number of people you are interacting with, but also you are not touching fixtures and refrigerators that likely have not been disinfected,” says emergency planning expert, Patrick Hardy.

2. Sanitize your groceries.

Groceries taken home can be disinfected easily. But when you bring your items home, you need to be careful.

“Wash produce. Remove boxes you don't need or can't disinfect. No matter what, you need to have a boundary in your home where potentially infected items cannot pass,” advises Hardy.

3. Shop smart.

Hardy recommends that when you're at the grocery store, avoid specific areas. “Do not buy anything in a buffet, or anything that has communal self-servicing like donuts, bagels, and so on,” he says. Luckily, many of these areas are not currently operating at the grocery store.

4. Try restaurant delivery and takeout.

If you receive food deliveries, the main problem is when the delivery person arrives at the door for the exchange. It's here that distancing is especially important.

“Leave tips in an envelope. Wait until the driver leaves to take the food. While they are still testing COVID-19 on surfaces, we recommend that people remove takeout boxes right away,” warns Hardy. 

Adds Frank Curto, head of quality and regulatory at Territory Foods, and a former employee of USDA, “Although there is the potential for Coronavirus to get on food via respiratory droplets or contaminated hands or contact surfaces, there is no scientific evidence that Coronavirus can be transmitted through food, nor of its ability to grow in or on food.” 

It's also widely believed in the scientific and medical communities that the highly acidic environment of the human stomach has a deactivating effect on COVID-19.

5. Heat up your food.

If you're feeling a little iffy about takeout, it may be beneficial to heat up your food a bit once it arrives and is removed from packaging.

“Since coronaviruses need a living host (animal or human) to grow, it's not expected that it can multiply to levels that would make food unsafe to eat,” says Curto. However, research and knowledge from past viral outbreaks (like SARS) suggests that thorough cooking is expected to kill the virus.

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6. Avoid contact with delivery people.

Be proactive about safeguarding yourself and your family from unnecessary exposures by avoiding situations where the virus is most commonly passed on, which may include direct contact with an infected person's body fluids (droplets from coughing or sneezing), or indirect contact with surfaces that an infected person has coughed or sneezed on.

“Be sure that the takeout providers you are patronizing are taking all the necessary steps to protect you as a customer. Ask them about their employee health and hygiene policies, sanitation and disinfection procedures/frequencies, dine-in restrictions, and any other preventive measures they are taking,” Curto recommends.

7. Make sure your takeout location of choice is following protocol.

As with your choice of takeout provider, be sure that meal delivery services you are choosing are taking all the necessary precautions to assure your health and safety.

“Since many of these services are providing food ingredients in the form of meal kits, many of the ingredients and components require further preparation; therefore, extending a portion of health and safety responsibility to you, the consumer,” Curto says.

8. Practice good safety measures.

Be sure you are adhering to good food handling and hygienic practices during the storage and preparation of your food. This includes:

  • Be sure your refrigerator has adequate cold-keeping ability (below 41 degrees F).
  • Keep raw and cooked/ready-to-eat foods separate while in storage and during preparation.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing food and frequently during food preparation (a minimum of 20 seconds).
  • Keep any utensils or cutting boards used for food preparation clean and sanitized prior and in-between uses.
  • Cook raw meat, poultry, seafood and egg products thoroughly. Use a food thermometer to verify internal cooking temperatures.
  • Cool foods quickly after cooking.

It should be noted that, practically speaking, it's very difficult to eliminate any source of viral transmission 100 percent. But reducing the amount of exposure or viral load (the concentration of virus in a sample) can make a difference.

The more cautious and careful we are, the better. 

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Aly Walansky is a NY-based lifestyles writer who focuses on health, wellness, and relationships. Her work appears in dozens of digital and print publications regularly. Visit her on Twitter or email her.

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