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How to safely shop for groceries during COVID-19 pandemic

With libraries, parks, theatres and non-essential businesses now off-limits, grocery shopping has become one of the few activities Canadians can leave home to do.

But how do you safely navigate the supermarket aisles? What’s the best way to pay at the checkout? How do you handle your items once you get home?

It’s important to keep in mind that people are unlikely to catch the new coronavirus from food or food packaging, since the virus does not survive well on surfaces, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So you’re more likely to be infected by your fellow shoppers than anything you purchase.

The virus is most commonly spread through respiratory droplets, or the spray from a cough or sneeze, physical contact, such as handshakes, and touching something with the virus on it, then touching your eyes, nose or mouth without washing your hands, the Public Health Agency of Canada says. To date, there is no evidence that food is a likely source of transmission of the virus, it says.

PHAC recommends using food delivery services or shopping for groceries online, if possible. But if not, here’s how to take precautions when you go out:

Make a shopping list, suggests Jeffrey Farber, a professor in the department of food science at the University of Guelph and director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety. Planning what you need to buy allows you to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible to minimize your exposure to other people, he says. This is important since even people who do not show symptoms can transmit the virus.

Shop alone if you can. The government of Quebec says children can accompany parents into stores if needed. But as much as possible, they should stay at home.

Dr. Farber recommends choosing a grocery store that is taking precautions to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. For instance, look for stores that have someone at the door handing out disinfectant wipes for your hands and to wipe down shopping-cart or basket handles, he says. (If stores near you don’t do this, bring your own disinfectants to use before and after you shop.)

The government of British Columbia this week issued guidance for retail food and grocery stores that included providing hand sanitizer in dispensers near doors and check-out stations, and placing cordons, cones or tape markers to separate people in lines.

Some grocery stores have reportedly introduced the concept of one-way aisles to allow customers to keep the recommended two metres away from each other.

Since it’s possible for people without symptoms to transmit the virus, Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam suggests wearing a non-medical mask in situations where it’s difficult to keep your physical distance from others, such as at the grocery store. There’s no evidence wearing a mask will protect you, but “it is an additional way that you can protect others,” she said in a press conference.

B.C. is calling on stores to provide clean carryout bags for customers’ purchases, stating customers should not use their own reusable bags and containers.

If you are going to use a reusable bag, however, Dr. Farber says you should be washing them regularly, even when there isn’t a pandemic.

It’s hard to recommend whether to use self-checkout or a cashier, he says, since there are multiple variables to consider. At a self-checkout kiosk, you may be able to keep your distance, but the machines and touch-screens may have been handled by numerous other people. Meanwhile, some stores have plexiglass screens set up between cashiers and customers, and they constantly wipe down conveyor belts. Regardless of which you choose, your risk of infection while making a transaction is low, Dr. Farber says.

Using a card with a tap option is the lowest risk form of payment, since it doesn’t require you to touch anything handled by others, he says.

Once you set down your groceries (preferably on a counter that can be easily disinfected), wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, Dr. Farber advises. Next, put all your groceries away and for good practice, he suggests, use a disinfectant to wipe down all the surfaces where you initially put down your groceries. Then, wash your hands with soap and water again.

There is no need to disinfect each individual item, Dr. Farber says, noting this may cause people undue anxiety.

“It places a huge burden on the consumer. It’s really not necessary because if you’re washing your hands well before and after you eat meals ... [the risk] is very, very low,” he says.

Dr. Farber also does not recommend using soap and water to wash fruits and vegetables before eating them. Soap, he says, is known to cause vomiting and diarrhea. Instead, just rinse them thoroughly under cold running water.

Cooking will kill coronaviruses, while freezing does not. But even so, he emphasizes, you’re unlikely to get infected from food anyway.