Coronavirus Q&A: How to shop safely during Covid-19

Conor Pope on how to keep yourself safe while shopping and minimise contact with coronavirus

A woman carries shopping bags in Dublin city centre as the Covid-19 pandemic takes hold. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA.

A woman carries shopping bags in Dublin city centre as the Covid-19 pandemic takes hold. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA.


I have to wash my shopping now, do I?

Well, no. Or yes. Maybe.

As the scale of the coronavirus crisis has deepened at home and abroad restrictions on daily life have become more intense. One of the few places people can now go is their supermarket. But people have been advised to go much less frequently than in the past. There has been much more focus on just how safe these places are and there are controls on how many people can enter shops to allow for social distancing. Measures are also being taken to sanitise them more deeply.

That’s all good then?

Yes, it is. But is it enough? Several days ago, a video appeared on YouTube from a US doctor in which he showed people how to decontaminate their shopping. Dr Jeffrey J Vanwingen asked people to imagine their groceries were covered in glitter - except the glitter is coronavirus. Dr Vanwingen then methodically cleaned his shopping in a video that ran to more than seven minutes. Within days it had been watched by more than 20 million people.

Is what he was saying true?

Well, his views were certainly bolstered in recent days closer to home. Supermarkets were described as “high-risk sites of [COVID-19]infection” and careless handling of shopping both in stores and at home was said to be putting people in danger.

Who said this?

The “disregard of hygiene standards” in some shops was highlighted by the Irish Global Health Network (IGHN). “We know that the virus can survive on hard surfaces such as plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours,” one of its environmental health specialists Niall Roche said. “It can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours. Supermarkets should adhere to the same guidance and practices that are being exercised in healthcare facilities, particularly for vulnerable shoppers.”

Was there more?

There was. The IGHN, in partnership with the Environmental Health Association of Ireland and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in the UK released a set of guidelines for shoppers which they hoped would help slow the spread of Covid-19.

These guidelines set out a number of protocols to help the public protect themselves while at the shops. They advised people to use their non-dominant hand to pick up goods to reduce the cross-contamination risk from touching of the mouth, nose or eyes and said contactless payments should be made where possible.

The guidelines also said that because the virus can live on surfaces - shopping trolleys, baskets, pin pads, and other regularly touched items - they should be sanitised after each use.

That seems fair enough. Anything else?

Yes. People were advised to reduce the frequency of shopping trips and only go when absolutely necessary and should avoid taking children to shops if possible and visit off-peak. They were encouraged to assess the infection control measures in local shops.

How could they do that?

Among the measures the groups said people should look out for were controls of the entry and exit of customers, the cleaning and sanitising of trolleys and baskets between use and the provision of hand sanitisers at entrances . The guidelines said best practise mandated there should be clear marking on floors to help customers maintain social distance and messages via posters and public address systems reminding customers and staff to maintain social distance.

Staff should also be practising social distancing on the shop floor and cleaning critical contact areas. The group also said baked goods should be covered to protect from sneezes and coughs.

So far so sensible. What else?

Consumers were advised to wash their hands immediately after returning home and take great care when packing goods away. Prior to stocking fridges and cupboards, shelves should be wiped with sanitiser and a paper towels and as coronavirus can survive on hard surfaces, the outside of all canned/hard surface pack goods should be wiped with a paper towel and warm soapy water,

An alternate option would be to leave non-perishable foods in a safe place for 72 hours. Remove outer food packaging and discard, being careful to limit handling of the inner packaging of items such as yoghurts.

Is that extreme? Do I really need to wash all my shopping?

Well, associate professor of virology at Trinity College Kim Roberts is unconvinced. She is one of Ireland’s leading microbiologists and says the risk of bringing coronavirus into your home on your shopping is low. She says the more serious risks are associated with actually travelling to the shops - particularly on public transport and in touching high-touch surfaces in shops such as doors, trollies, freezer handles and the rest. She says the chances that a particular box of cereal or tin that you touch will have been sneezed on directly and will have, as a result a sufficiently high level of the virus to transmit it to the person who touches it next are very low.

Does that mean transmission that way is impossible?

No, it is possible. But she says it is important to assess and manage risk in this crisis.

Does Dr Roberts wash her shopping?

No, she does not.

Is there any other advice out there?

There is indeed. “Currently, there is no evidence that Covid-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging,” says Ireland’s food safety watchdog Safefood. It adds that now - as ever - it is important to follow good hygiene practices when handling or preparing foods.

Does Safefood have specific coronavirus advice?

It does. When you go food shopping, you should wash your hands before you leave the house, avoid touching your face when you’re out and follow social distancing. When you come home, you should wash your hands straight away. Wash them again once you have unpacked and put away your shopping.

It says it is not necessary to sanitise the outside of food packaging. “While there is some evidence that the virus can survive on hard surfaces, the risk from handling food packing is very low and there is no evidence that the illness can be transmitted in this way,” is its advice.

So should I put my food into quarantine?

Not according to Safefood. “You should always put away your shopping as soon as you get home, especially perishable foods which must be stored in the fridge or freezer.” On this point the authority was in agreement with Dr Vanwingen who felt compelled to release a sequel to his first video reminding people of this fact.

What else do I need to know? Oh, yes, should I wear gloves when shopping?

Here’s the thing. A healthcare professional in a healthcare setting has to wear gloves to protect themselves and to protect patients. And the gloves can make a huge difference. But the jury is out when it comes to the general public using them to buy their groceries. Coronavirus can not penetrate your skin and you will not get it if is on your skin. It has to enter your body through the nose, mouth or eyes. If you wear gloves and are careful not to touch your face while wearing them and remove them carefully and dispose of them carefully as soon as you have moved away from the high risk high touch areas, then they may be okay. But if you allow the gloves to give you a false sense of security and are careless with them, they could actually be doing more harm than good.

What about face masks?

If this question had been asked of us two weeks ago we would have said a definitive no as all the official guidance, in Ireland and internationally, was saying masks were of limited benefit away from specialised health settings and could even be counterproductive when handled by people who don’t know what they are doing. And let’s face it that is all of us who are not working in healthcare. Yet, given the lack of definitive knowledge about how coronavirus is spread, many experts now argue that something is better than nothing, and masks may play a role, alongside social distancing and hand hygiene.

Right now the World Health Organisation and US regulators are mulling a change of their guidelines in relation to masks. Countries such as Austria and the Czech Republic have made the wearing of masks compulsory in public - notably in shops. Countries in Asia where mask-wearing is common say it has helped to stem the spread.

Should I stop using recycled shopping bags?

There are some schools of thought that suggest bags for life should not be used in this time of extreme crisis. But the reality is that the bags in your home are probably less exposed to the virus than the bags in the shop. The act of bringing them to the shop does not make them more dangerous. You could safely disinfect bags for life before and after use or if they are fabric you could wash them at 60 degrees but that would be more for peace of mind than anything else.

What about when it comes to paying, should I pay in cash?

No. Ideally you want to limit all physical interactions with other people. The best way to pay is by tapping and using a contactless debit or credit card. This has limits - contactless can only be used up to a maximum of €50 in some stores although the limit is €30 in Tesco. Apple and android pay can sometimes be used for larger sums although many people don’t have that facility - Bank of Ireland, for example, has still not rolled it out to its customers. After that the next option is chip and pin. And then cash. It is incredibly important that no matter what mode you use to pay you keep washing your hands but it is even more important you wash or sanitise your hands if using keypads or handling cash.

Should I avoid using a trolley?

It is hard to do a weekly shop - and it is very important that you reduce the number of trips to the supermarket - without a trolly. Ideally supermarket staff will be cleaning the trollies regularly. But if they are not you should, where possible, sanitise them yourself and then wash your hands as soon as you can. And do not touch your face. We have said it before and will say it again. The virus cannot enter your system through your skin so if you keep your hands away from your face and keep them clean you are helping to keep yourself safe.