Which Is Safer at Your Grocery Store: Self-checkout or Regular Checkout?

Safe coronavirus grocery shopping strategies

Now that we’re all practicing social distancing in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, you may be wondering how best to get groceries.

The safest choice from a social distancing perspective is to have your grocery haul delivered (Instacart, Whole Foods/Amazon, Peapod). But you may not be in a position to use these services (or you may still want the option to safely visit your local Costco or Trader Joe’s). If you’re heading into the store, what’s the safest way to do so?

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Last weekend, Donald Schaffner, PhD, a distinguished professor and extension specialist in food science with expertise in microbial risk assessment at Rutgers University, went shopping for a few items—and you can learn a lot from his experience.

Prepare for shopping smartly

The first thing he did was grab reusable bags from home. You can use them to pack and carry your groceries in while at the store, which eliminates the need for a cart, says Schaffner.

However, if that’s not an option or you’re buying enough to fill a cart, then take comfort in the fact that many grocery stores are stationing someone at the entrance who’s spraying or wiping down the handle of the cart with disinfectant. Because of this increased vigilance, “I had confidence I was shopping at the right store,” says Schaffner. Whether you’re using a wipe or relying on a store employee to do it for you, remember to let the disinfectant dry before using the cart. “We know that these chemicals take some time to act,” he says. What’s more, wet surfaces, in general, transfer germs easier than dry.

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Also, look out for a dispenser of hand sanitizer at the entrance—and use it, advises Schaffner.

How to be the safest you can be while at the grocery store

Next, head through the store as efficiently as you can. Coming with a list of your top must-haves will help you speed through, something that ultimately reduces your exposure to others. During his shopping trip, Schaffner bought a few ingredients for a salad, choosing bagged cucumbers in plastic wrap, carrots in a bag, and salad greens in a box. While he didn’t pick up any piece of produce that was exposed (like a single apple or bell pepper), he says that the risk of contracting the virus from a piece of food that was touched by someone else is low. (Still, wash it when you get home; there are multiple reasons to do this.)

Next, look around you as you shop the aisles. “I was keeping a radar to anyone who might be sick or coughing,” says Schaffner. Those are the people you’d want to avoid in the store; you might also consider alerting a store employee to the situation.

Shop with the needs of others in mind

This is not about your health, but it is vital for the health and well-being of others in your community. Purchase the items that you know you’re going to eat and resist hoarding more than you need. It’s your duty to leave some behind for your fellow neighbors who may not yet have had the chance to stock up properly. Remember that we are all in this together.

The big question: regular or self-checkout?

Not all grocery stores offer the choice between regular or self-checkout, but if you have the option, go for self-checkout. You’ll no doubt touch more buttons in self-checkout, says Schaffner, but you eliminate the face time with a clerk and bagger, which is—unfortunately—just another layer of exposure. Otherwise, it’s best practices for checkers and baggers to wear gloves or use hand sanitizer, he says. And do your best to maintain a safe six-foot distance between you and your fellow line-standers while you wait your turn.

No matter which way you check out, Schaffner says, head back to that hand sanitizer station (if available) and use it before walking out the door.

What to do if you think you might be sick (or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19)

If you are sick with symptoms that are consistent with either COVID-19 (fever, coughing, shortness of breath) or the flu, or you have been in contact with someone who has developed the disease, you MUST consider yourself quarantined. Which means, do NOT go to the grocery store, says Schaffner. Order groceries and put a note in the directions section asking for them to be left at the door—and leave a tip through the app.

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