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Your coronavirus grocery questions, answered by experts

Should I be using self-checkout? Are delivery services ethical? Where is the peanut butter?

In our collective attempt to flatten the curve, grocery shopping has become a minefield. We are not supposed to leave our homes, yet we have to keep feeding ourselves; as a result, what used to be a comforting annoyance now feels dangerous. Can you touch that cereal box? Why is that person standing so close?

There is a lot of guidance on how to handle the store, and a lot of it is confusing, if not contradictory. It’s okay to get groceries, we’re told, but not too often. You probably aren’t going to get coronavirus from touching the wrong avocado, or at least, scientists say transmission from food is unlikely. Maybe it’s harder to find pasta now, but you shouldn’t panic about shortages.

What is the safest way to shop in a grocery store?

While it may be possible to get sick by touching surfaces with the virus, the main way the virus spreads is thought to be person-to-person contact, according to the CDC. The big threat here isn’t pasta boxes; it’s other people.

So the first thing you want to do is minimize your shopping trips (or consider delivery). “If you can get it down to once every week or every two weeks, that’s great,” says Anne-Marie Gloster, a lecturer in the nutritional science program at the University of Washington. And as much as possible, shop at off-peak times, says Joshua Petrie, an assistant research professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. Some stores are limiting the number of shoppers inside at once, or marking every 6 feet along the checkout line, to show customers how far apart to stand. This is good. The emptier, the better.

Which means that, if you can: Go alone, and — again, if possible — without children, who love touching things. It’s also worth doing some planning before you go, says Gloster, both so you can move quickly once you’re in the store and so you don’t forget anything. This is your big biweekly chance.

The No. 1 priority is keeping physical distance from other people. At the same time, we know the virus can live on surfaces for at least some amount of time, so you do want to avoid touching stuff as much as possible. Gloster “strongly suggests” wiping down the handle of your shopping cart with disinfectant wipes; at this point, many stores have them by the carts.

Consider leaving your phone in your pocket, because your phone is gross. “It’s truly a spit vector,” she says. We spit on it, we fondle it, we put it down on stuff, we pick it up and rub it on our faces. Now is the time to revive the paper list.

Should I wear a mask to the store?

Yes. Given the current shortages, surgical masks and N95 respirators should be reserved for medical workers, but as of April 3, the CDC “recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

This represents a major change in the country’s approach to fighting the spread of the coronavirus. Until now, the CDC had been advising healthy people not to wear masks unless they were showing symptoms or had reason to believe they’d been exposed. But — as many other experts have been pointing out for weeks — one problem with that guidance is that there’s no way to know who has it. As many as a quarter of coronavirus cases are asymptomatic, CDC director Robert Redfield said in the week leading up to the new guidance, and even people who do eventually get sick can transmit the virus before showing any symptoms.

The logic here is pretty straightforward: Since coronavirus mostly spreads when germ-containing droplets make their way into a person’s mouth, nose, or eyes, it makes sense to try to limit how many droplets are floating around in crowded spaces.

The big caveat is that, as noted, traditional medical masks still should go to medical professionals first. While a cloth mask isn’t as good as a medical one, it still offers some protection. Widespread face coverings don’t mean we’ll be able to ease up on other recommendations like social distancing and frequent hand-washing; cloth masks just offer one more layer of protection. If you want to make your own, here’s how.

While we’re talking about protective gear, gloves — which have the potential to carry the virus more or less the same way hands do — are still mostly not recommended for grocery shopping. It’s more important to wash your hands after your trip and avoid touching your face.

Is it okay to bring my own reusable bag, or is it better to just get paper or plastic ones and throw them away?

Reusable bags are fine — assuming you’re diligent about cleaning them. Under more normal circumstances, once a week would be okay. Right now, Gloster advises: “Wash them after you come back, every single time.” (Some experts, however, have expressed less concern about washing bags after each use.)

As cleaning expert Jolie Kerr wrote for Vox, nylon and cotton grocery bags can be machine-washed in cold water and air-dried. If you have reusable bags that can’t be machine-washed, you can wipe them down with a disinfecting wipe or an all-purpose spray and a paper towel. You can refer to the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of disinfectants for use against the SARS-CoV-2 virus to determine if a cleaning agent meets the agency’s criteria for use against the coronavirus.

What about checkout? Should I use cash or credit? Is self-checkout safer?

If you have a contactless option like Apple Pay, that’s probably the best, Gloster says. (Keep your phone in your pocket until then.)

As for cash versus credit? “There’s no good answer here,” Gloster continues. Paying with plastic often means touching a pin pad; cash isn’t known for being especially clean. Self-checkout should reduce contact with a cashier — good for everyone! — but it requires you to touch surfaces other people are also touching.

However you pay, Petrie says, “the most important thing is washing your hands when you’re done.”

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