Navigating the New Norms: Grocery Store Edition

We are living, quite frankly, in a very weird time. We are naturally wired for emotional and physical connections, and yet we are being told that keeping our distance is the best way to demonstrate compassion for our fellow humans. And while of course we understand that such a directive is imperative, it’s still tough. 

With that in mind, we’re offering a series of stories on navigating social distancing in a variety of settings.

Let’s start with the grocery store. Is it safe to shop inside the brick and mortar store you’ve probably shopped at forever? Is pick-up safer, or should you have your order delivered? After all, the wait could be days long and who knows how many hands have touched your order?

In a nutshell, “it all comes down to hand hygiene.” That’s what Liz Garman, a spokesperson for the Association for Professionals in Epidemiology in Arlington, Va., told consumerreports.org. Meaning that no matter how you get your groceries make sure you wash your hands before and after touching any purchase. 

Other general tips:

Give produce a good rinse. Don’t worry about using soap, which can end up upsetting your stomach. Instead, focus on rubbing the produce under the running water, which is enough to clean them. That includes bananas and others with non-edible skin.

Wash your hands before and after a trip to the grocery store. Contrary to what you may have heard, you don’t need to wipe down groceries with a disinfectant before putting them away, according to Ben Chapman, a food safety expert and professor at North Carolina State University. But it’s still good practice to wash your hands when you come home from the store, before even putting your groceries away, then again if you’d like after putting them away. 

As far as how that food gets to you, we’ll touch on three ways and give an upside, downside, and consideration for each.

How it works: You go online to the store’s website, pick a time for delivery and order what you need.

The upside: You don’t have to leave home.

The downside: Wait times can vary, so you may not get your groceries same-day or even the next day. Additionally, the store may be out of something you want, which you may not realize until you open the packages and realize that one key dinner ingredient is missing. The services will try to notify you, but keep in mind they’re busy so you may not get that email till long after the delivery.

Suggestions:  

  • Avoid a direct hand-off with the delivery person. As clean as the store or warehouse might be, and as many times as the deliverer used hand sanitizer, he or she may still be a carrier of the virus or may have touched a surface that contained particles of the virus. And of course, follow the food preparations listed earlier, washing your hands frequently.
  • Be a generous tipper if you’re able to, but do so electronically if you have the option. Money is notoriously dirty anyway, global pandemic or not.
  • Order before you need restocking. If you wait until you’re out of milk, you may need to eat your cereal without it because same-day delivery time slots can book up fast, meaning it may be awhile. 
  • It’s ok to avoid opening the door to the delivery person, but if you can acknowledge them, even if it’s shouting through the door, just remember to be kind. These folks are risking their own health to make sure we have what we need to get through this.

How it works: You go to the grocery store’s website, most of which have how-tos on the main page. You pick a time to pick up your order, decide what you want, and then drive to the location you selected and an employee brings your order to your car.

The upside: You don’t have to brave the crowd inside, and the drive gets you out of the house if you’re going stir-crazy.

The downside: Like ordering delivery, time slots may not be available for a day or more. Additionally, once placed, orders most likely cannot be changed. Substitutions may not be what you had in mind. 

Suggestions: 

  • Stay in your car and ask the person who brings your food out to put it in the back seat or in the trunk. The six-feet-apart rule applies everywhere.
  • Just as with delivery, if you can, tip electronically and generously. 
  • Wash your hands after putting your groceries away.

How it works: Just like it always has, although you’ll need to be conscientious about staying six feet away from other people. Plus, in the unlikely event that there are food samples set out, avoid them.

The upside: You can peruse everything, picking bananas in just the stage of ripeness that you like; getting the exact box of cereal you want, etc. 

The downside: You’re being exposed to a lot of people, including products they may have touched as well as airborne droplets that may be lingering from a sneeze or cough. 

Suggestions:

  • Shop when the store is less likely to be crowded. Sunday afternoons are notoriously busy times. Studies show the best time, virus-prevention-wise, are early mornings — from 6 to 7 a.m. Many stores, though, reserve those times for the elderly and immune-compromised shoppers. Late nights tend to be sparse too, although the selection may not be as great. No matter what time you go, you may be greeted with a line to get in, as many stores are now limiting the number of patrons inside at one time to help ensure safety and proper social distancing. 
  • Although not mandatory, the CDC is recommending the use of cloth face masks when visiting areas with the potential for large transmission. This can include a scarf, bandana, T-shirt, or one you sew yourself (or purchased from sites like Etsy). 
  • Leave the kids at home if you can. Yeah, they want to get out, too. But you need to focus on getting in and getting out, and kids tend to be notorious touchers of things.
  • Have a list for supplies that will last you a week. The less often you get out, the better your chances for staying safe.

No matter how you choose to shop, remember that a little kindness goes a long way. A smile or a simple “stay well” can really mean a lot to the people who are stocking, delivering or ringing up your purchases right now. Social distancing is essential, but there are no restrictions on empathy. 

We understand that right now is weird — for everyone. The daily norms we’ve become accustomed to are having to be put on hold or modified for the greater good of the community, especially those at high-risk. But if we each do our part to stay safe and keep others safe, we will hopefully get back to “normal” soon. 

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