Coronavirus: How to Safely Shop for Groceries

Health experts share their tips on how to safely shop for groceries during Covid-19 to reduce the risk of transmission.

As coronavirus continues to spread, most of the country is on lockdown with shelter-in-place mandates except to run necessary errands, such as grocery shopping. But even this once simple task is loaded with fear and uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 transmission.

If you’re running low on food, you should see if you can shop online or even do curbside pick-up from your local supermarket. This will eliminate a great deal of contact with others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, these services may be more expensive than simply going to the supermarket and they are not available everywhere.

If this is not feasible, and you need to head out for groceries, can you shop safely during this pandemic? If so, how? Yes, you can if you take certain precautions.

We spoke with health experts who share their tips about how to shop safely for groceries, and what you can do to ease your fears of Covid-19 transmission at the supermarket.

woman looking in fridge to see what she needs from the grocery store10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Plan ahead

Keep a running list of what you need at the supermarket so you can get it all in one shot, says Diane Rigassio Radler, PhD, director for the Institute for Nutrition Interventions at the Rutgers School of Health Professions in Newark, New Jersey. “You don’t want to have to run to the market daily so plan ahead and schedule a trip to the market every week or 10 days.” By the way, this is not an excuse to hoard food or other supplies, she notes.

Avoid rush hours to keep your (physical) distance

Try to go to the supermarket during off times when it is less likely to be packed, Radler says. Many grocery stores now have senior shopping hours so that individuals who are considered high risk can shop in relative safety. These hours should also be listed on the store’s website. If you’re not sure whether you should take advantage of these hours, here are the other people at the highest risk for Covid-19.

Also, remember to keep at least six feet away from anyone else in the store, says Aline M. Holmes, RN, clinical associate professor in the Division of Advanced Nursing Practice at Rutgers School of Nursing in Newark, New Jersey. Grocery stores are trying to make this easier to do. “Some stores are making aisles one-way to facilitate traffic and distance,” she says. “Many grocery stores are now limiting the number of people shopping at any one time, so there may be a line outside the doors.”

Cover your face and your hands

The CDC recently reversed its stance on face protection during the Covid-19 pandemic. The agency now recommends wearing face coverings in public places where physical distancing can be hard to achieve. “Wear a face covering or make your own mask to protect yourself when shopping,” Radler advises. Here are some tips on how to make your own face mask.

As with your hands, gloves may be an option if you have to touch various items at the store, says Robert Glatter, MD, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Just make sure you use hand gel to clean the gloves before removing them, and then clean your hands again after you take them off.” Be sure to check out these tips on wearing gloves during coronavirus.

customer wearing gloves and wiping down shopping cartSpiderplay/Getty Images

Wipe down shopping cart handles

Coronaviruses can remain on hard surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel for up to three days, according to a March 2020 study in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Therefore, items like shopping cart/basket handles are likely to be among the germiest at the supermarket. Lower your risks by wiping down the shopping cart handle and other shared surfaces with alcohol-based disinfectant wipes, Radler says. Some stores are doing this for customers, but it is better to be safe than sorry, so travel with your own wipes. “If someone stocking the store shelves sneezes on the product and has Covid-19, the germs could be there,” she says. Protect yourself by wiping down objects you touch and place in your cart with alcohol or bleach-based wipes, suggests Dr. Glatter.

Keep toddlers safe

Any parent knows that taking a toddler to the grocery store can be quite an adventure, and now many have no choice but to do so due to school closings, says Susan Wootton, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with UTHealth and UT Physicians in Houston. “Only one person from the family should be going if at all possible, but if it is not possible then a stroller or baby carrier may help reduce the toddler’s contact with items in the store.” (This is how you can stop the spread of coronavirus at home.)

Pay with apps, bag your groceries

Cash is out and payment apps like Apple Pay and Google Pay are in, says Radler. “These two seem like safe options germ wise and hacking wise,” she says. Using apps means there is no touching of cash or engaging with credit card machines which could be contaminated. If you have wipes, consider wiping down the machine before use and also cleaning your hands or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you handle money, the CDC advises. It’s also good counsel to disinfect your phone to kill the coronavirus.

When it comes to packing up your groceries offer to bag your own. This means one less person will touch them and reduce the potential of infecting your items. It is still important to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after you bag your groceries.

grocery bags sitting on counteryulkapopkova/Getty Images

Unpack smartly and wash your hands

The coronavirus can survive on cardboard for up to 24 hours, according to the NEJM study. Wash your hands before and after you unload cardboard delivery boxes, and avoid touching your face in the process. “After you get home, you can leave non-perishable groceries outside for a few hours to reduce the chance of exposure to any viral particles,” Dr. Glatter says.

Another tip: “When you get home from the store, transfer the deli meats, produce and other items from the store’s plastic bags to your own containers or drawers,” Radler says. Make sure to wash all fruits and veggies and wash your hands after this exercise, she adds.

This remains the best way to protect yourself from SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, Radler says. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after you return from the market or unpack any items and don’t touch your face.

Keep calm

You can shop safely for groceries, Dr. Glatter says. “The risk of spread of SARS-CoV-2 is primarily person to person, via droplets as a result of coughing or sneezing. It’s not via surfaces,” he says. “While the virus can survive on cardboard up to a day, and plastic and stainless steel for up to [three] days, it requires many steps to result in an infection.”

Do you have a story to share about coronavirus? Click this link to share your Covid-19 story with us.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Running Essential Errands"
  • Diane Rigassio Radler, PhD, Director for the Institute for Nutrition Interventions, Rutgers School of Health Professions, Newark, New Jersey
  • Aline M. Holmes, RN, clinical associate professor, Division of Advanced Nursing Practice, Rutgers School of Nursing, Newark, New Jersey
  • CDC: "Recommendation Regarding the Use of Cloth Face Coverings, Especially in Areas of Significant Community-Based Transmission"
  • Robert Glatter, MD, an emergency physician, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City
  • Susan Wootton, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, UTHealth and UT Physicians, Houston
  • New England Journal of Medicine: "Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1"

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.