Still not sure how to best get groceries during a pandemic? Health experts have some answers

Grocery shopping is deemed essential during this pandemic. But it comes with plenty of questions and concerns. We try to provide some clarity.

Is online shopping better than going in person? Should you disinfect everything you buy?

Grocery shopping during a pandemic comes with plenty of uncertainty, questions and concern. (Submitted by Robyn Brown)

We continue to get questions almost daily about grocery shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic — everything from the importance of disinfecting the carts and baskets, to how best to practise physical distancing while shopping, and whether to disinfect everything you buy. 

Public health officials across the country have been consistent in their advice that people stay home as much as possible and therefore try to shop for groceries only once a week or less, and preferably alone (ie. don't bring the kids unless absolutely necessary). 

But there are several questions Canadians still have, beginning with...

Is it better to grocery shop in person or online?

If you live in an area that offers online shopping and delivery, you might be weighing whether it's better to have a potentially infected stranger choose your food and bag it up, and then have another potentially infected stranger deliver it to you — or whether you're better off going shopping in person, potentially exposing yourself to an infected individual, and handling a potentially contaminated shopping cart. 

It can be a dilemma.

A simple message from Toronto's medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, may help guide you: "Each time we leave our homes, we increase the risk of virus spread." 

It's a message echoed by Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases specialist at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton: "It's better to avoid being in a closed environment with a lot of people where you can't practise social distancing."

Chagla points out that even if you shop in person and pick your own food, that food has been handled by countless people before you anyway. "It's not like you're picking stuff off the truck." One way or another, he said, "people are touching your food before you touch your food." 

Toronto's associate medical officer of health, Dr. Vinita Dubey, says online shopping carries less risk of COVID-19 infection.

"Given that the virus is spread through close contact with a person, avoiding contact with individuals through grocery shopping is preferred," she said in an email exchange. 

Should online shopping be only for people at high risk?

In some parts of the country right now, getting a delivery or even a pick-up slot for online shopping is nearly impossible without a wait of a week or two. 

Chagla suggests that people who are healthy and able can still go to the grocery store in person. But he says stores should look at prioritizing online shopping for the individuals who either can't go out or shouldn't be exposing themselves to potential coronavirus infection.

"It's not unlimited resources," he said. "So maybe we should be prioritizing people that really do need to stay out of the public as much as possible... those people that are in quarantine or isolation," he said, or who could become fatally ill if they contract the virus.

What if I have to shop in person?

Most important, the experts say, is to go alone.

"The more people that are there, the more the risk increases," Chagla said. He also advises making a list of what you need, having a plan, and getting in and out of the store as efficiently as possible. 

WATCH | Health officials say shopping should be done solo:

Groceries no longer 'a family activity'

4 years ago
Duration 0:29
Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie says people need to grocery shop less — and do it on their own.

And of course, once you're at the store — whether you are forced to wait in line as the store limits the number of people inside or whether you get in right away — always do your best to keep two metres between you and other people, even if it means waiting to go down an aisle or to get what you need off the shelf. 

Customers wait in line to shop for groceries at Famous Foods in Vancouver on Thursday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Is it enough to disinfect the cart handle? Why not the whole cart?

Chagla says not to worry about disinfecting the whole shopping cart or basket. You again have to think about what someone's hands are touching most — hands that are more likely to be contaminated.

"It's much more likely that [the virus] gets on secretions, gets onto a hand, gets onto the cart handle than it is getting on to a box of Cheerios and staying there and then contaminating a cart." 

So then...

Do you have to disinfect everything you buy?

Given some of the videos and stories that have been making the rounds lately, the answer from Chagla might come as a surprise — and maybe a bit of a relief. 

His answer is no. Chagla says that even in the most experimental studies, the coronavirus lasts on surfaces for maybe two or three days. And those are surfaces that are optimal for the virus, with optimal humidity and optimal temperatures (such as your body's temperature of 37 degrees).

He says the virus is unlikely to last on groceries after they've been in your fridge for a day or two and it's not even clear if the virus scientists detected on those surfaces was still infectious.

His advice? Don't worry about washing or disinfecting all of your groceries.

Many people wonder if they need to disinfect or wash their groceries when they get them home. (Laurence Watt/CBC)

Wash or disinfect your hands after you pay for and pack up your groceries and before you put them in your car.

Once you get home, he says, "Put away the groceries. Wash your hands." 

And when you need your groceries, when you're preparing your food, he advises to wash your hands afterwards, just as you would normally before you eat. "Then whatever you've touched has been disinfected."

Dubey adds fresh produce should, of course, be cleaned before it's eaten and raw meats cooked at the appropriate temperature.

She agrees it's "unlikely that COVID-19 will spread in a home through contamination on packaging." 

WATCH | Tips for making sure your food is safe:

How to handle your groceries during the COVID-19 outbreak

4 years ago
Duration 1:37
The coronavirus can live up to several days on some surfaces, but experts say there's no reason to worry about the groceries you bring home. CBC News shows you how basic hygiene will keep you safe from your groceries.

Is there a better time of day to shop?

Many stores have devoted the first hour of the day to seniors or others who might be at higher risk if they get sick with COVID-19. 

Chagla also advises people who are maybe working from home or have more flexibility to shop, when possible, at off-peak hours, and let people such as first responders, health-care workers or others who have fewer options to shop at busier times.

"Let them go on the weekend without that much density if you have an off-peak time to go," he suggested. "It's also better for you … because you're going to go at a time where there's less people, too."

But what if the weekend is only one day? 

Quebec takes away Sunday shopping 

This week, Quebec announced it has decided to close grocery stores on Sundays to give staff a rest. But could this create a greater public health concern, as more people will feel the need to shop on the other six days?

Chagla says, yes, Quebecers are going to have one less day to shop. "But at the same time, you have less exposure within the grocery store on a single day. So less people around on that day, less workers around on that day."

That's a good thing.

"You're actually reducing an entire day of grocery shopping. So you're reducing the risk for that, too."

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