- Experts say there are ways to stay safe while grocery shopping even with the new, more contagious coronavirus variants.
- They recommend making fewer trips to the store as well as going during times it's less crowded.
- They also say people should continue wearing masks and maintaining physical distance.
A mask and hand sanitizer — they’re likely two essentials that accompany you on your physically distanced grocery store run.
As new variants of SARS-CoV-2 crop up across the United States, you may contemplate whether it’s safe to be walking down those aisles anymore.
In fact, experts say this is a time to be even more vigilant.
“Whatever precautions you were taking before, you want to step those up a little bit,” said Eleanor J. Murray, ScD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health in Massachusetts. “The concern is that basically every activity is a bit more risky than it was before.”
As variants continue to be detected in more states, experts shared with Healthline how to safely approach grocery shopping, what the biggest risks are, and how you can protect yourself.
Different approaches to shopping
The virus that causes COVID-19 has mutated and produced variants that are better at infecting people and making them sick.
One variant in the United Kingdom may be associated with an increased risk of death.
Through the pandemic, people have been handling grocery shopping reasonably well, Murray said.
“On the one extreme, there are some people who have not been going to grocery stores and only getting groceries delivered — or only doing curbside pickup — those people can probably just continue doing that,” she told Healthline.
On the other hand, people are going to stores to buy their products while taking precautions such as wearing masks and maintaining physical distance. These shoppers should be thinking about what more they can do.
Zeroing in on your mask is a good place to start.
“The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is recommending that people kick their mask up a notch,” Murray said. “If you were wearing just a fabric mask, something that had just one layer of fabric, you want to look for something that has more layers of fabric — something like a 3- or 4- layer cotton mask would be much better than just a single layer of fabric or a bandana.”
Even better, Murray said, would be to wear a mask with a rating such as an N95 or KN95.
Michael LeVasseur, PhD, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, told Healthline that from his perspective, these variants aren’t any more transmissible, they’re just more infectious.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that suggests that those infected with these variants would be shedding more virus,” he said. “The difference is that these variants are more infectious, meaning that they’re more likely to cause an infection upon exposure. As a result of this, I don’t think any additional measures are needed to prevent infection. I just want people to be more vigilant.”
“If you’re more comfortable wearing two masks, by all means, go ahead and do so,” LeVasseur said. “If you’re concerned about going to the grocery store and you can order your groceries online, by all means [do so].”
LeVasseur added that he’s not changing his behavior because of new variants.
“That said, my behavior has been much the same for the past year. I’m only going to the grocery store about once per week. I’m always wearing my mask when I’m outside of my house. I’m not spending time with friends and family in person,” he said. “If I choose to dine at a restaurant, I’m only doing so outside (and doing so infrequently).”
He's concerned that people are more anxious about these new variants and the impact of that anxiety on long-term mental health.
“While it’s great that people are being more vigilant,” he added, “I don’t think anyone should have stopped being vigilant in the first place.”
Risk in the aisles
In addition to physical distancing as much a possible, practicing proper hand hygiene and mask wearing, LeVasseur said it’s also a good idea to continue to limit your exposure by not making as many trips.
“In the ‘before times,’ I would go to the grocery store every day. I live a block away from two grocery stores,” he said. “For the past several months, I go once every week or two depending on how my supplies are.”
Another piece to consider while shopping is minimizing the number of people with whom you would potentially share space, Murray said.
“You want to try to go at less crowded times,” she said. “If you had a choice between a grocery store that was really small and low ceiling, and another one that was big and airy, you probably want to go toward the big and airy one just because there’s likely more air circulation there and less density of virus in the air if anyone is infected.”
She also suggests minimizing the amount of time you’re in the store and the number of trips you’re making.
“In general, I think the advice is to have as few people from the household go as possible,” she said. “Weighing things like: If two of us go, we could go once every two weeks and carry home more groceries. That’s probably better than having one person go twice a week.”
If it’s possible, it’s advised to leave children home. If children must join you, they should be masked.
“Make sure to wash your hands after you get back. Making sure not to touch your eyes, nose, and face while you’re in there as much as possible,” Murray said.
“If you do have kids with you, giving their hands a wet wipe after you come out of the store can be useful,” she added.
It’s natural to think about the risk to yourself in the store, but as Murray notes, the more you can avoid going into grocery stores or the shorter you can make the interactions there, the safer you make it for the employees.
Even if you’ve been vaccinated, you still need to think about protecting those around you when you shop.
“We still don’t quite know how much you being vaccinated protects the people around you and so the recommendation is still for you to continue wearing a mask, even if you’ve been vaccinated, until a lot more people have been vaccinated,” she said.
“You don’t have to necessarily worry quite so much about yourself, but if your household members or those grocery store employees haven’t yet been vaccinated we don’t know for sure that it wouldn’t [be] able to give them an infection even though you don’t get sick,” Murray said.
More ways to stay safe
Durland Fish, PhD, professor emeritus of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, recommends avoiding grocery stores if at all possible.
“Many grocery stores provide delivery or pickup services ordered over the internet. I have used both. Delivery services leave the groceries in front of my door, and pickup services load the groceries into the trunk of my car,” Fish told Healthline. “This eliminates contact with potentially infectious people.”
Contamination of packaging is not of concern, Fish said. The main source of infection is direct contact with people.
“If I were concerned, I would use gloves and wipes, but I think that is overkill,” Fish said.
He added that while it's inconvenient, “double masking with a face shield offers maximum protection.”
Washing your hands after touching anything that has come to your house is a good idea, “but the science has moved on from the idea of needing to wipe down all boxes and bags that your food comes in,” Murray said.
She added that wiping down produce with any kind of chemical to clean it — a question she frequently receives — is not recommended.
Murray discourages lingering to chitchat at the cash register but knows “that can be hard for some people because I know a lot of us are not getting that much social interaction.”
Along with the guidelines we hear day in and day out, limiting the duration of your grocery shopping is a good approach to in-person shopping.
Choosing grocery delivery or curbside pickup reduces the risk of contracting the disease, and protects yourself and others.
“It may be safer for you, but it’s also potentially safer for other people who have to go in person or have to be there in person,” she said.