Post #565: Shopping etiquette in the time of COVID-19

Source:  Amazon.

These are my rules for grocery shopping, for the time being.  I may update this as I fine-tune my technique.

  1. Go infrequently and make a list.
  2. Ask friends if they need anything.
  3. Wash thrice:  Before you go, when you get home, and after unpacking.
  4. Take a page from the newspaper (to cover the handle of the shopping cart).
  5. Keep your distance.
  6. If you gotta cough … stay the hell out of my grocery store.
  7. Shop with your eyes.  You touch it, you bought it.
  8. Frozen food/dairy case/anything requiring you to touch a handle goes last.
  9. Now one hand is dirty (and/or, now use your hand sanitizer)
  10. If you’re not the one packing, leave your bags at home.
  11. Cash or charge:  Touch screens, signature blocks, styluses, and the like.
  12. Now both your hands are dirty (and/or use your hand sanitizer)
  13. Chat with your cashier, but … don’t thank them for being there.
  14. Optionally:  Quarantine your groceries.

FWIW, Item 6 is something that I originally entitled:  Coughing at the grocery store is the new farting in an elevator.  If you can’t keep that particular orifice shut, then just don’t go there.  That’s based on an anecdote given below.  Trust me on this, if you cough, you’re going to get some hard looks, no matter how politely you do it.

These items, and why I continue to shop in person, are explained below.

If you think I’m being overly fastidious, just repeat the phrase “Boomer remover” a few times.


Introduction

Think of grocery delivery services as the last step of the supply chain.  They were set up to handle normal everyday demand, no more, no less.

And now they are in short supply. My understanding is that, at present, it is difficult, and frequently impossible, to schedule a grocery delivery with local stores.  The situation for curbside  grocery pickup services appears similar.  I haven’t looked at other delivery services (e.g., most major drug stores will delivery your prescription drugs).

And, from what I hear, current product shortages make grocery delivery a hit-or-miss thing these days.  You can order items.  You can’t really say, e.g., if the pears look a little dodgy, I’ll take apples instead.

The need for home delivery is more of an issue for some than for others.  If you are unable to shop in person, or it is particularly unwise for you to shop in person, you now have to depend on grocery delivery, or on your neighbors, if you run out of some necessity.

For the time being, I continue to shop at the grocery store in person.  This is my list of tips for doing that.  This is really more a guide to risk minimization, but is to some degree my guide to the new etiquette of shopping.  To a large degree, it addresses the sanitation mistakes I have made on my first two trips to the store.

I assume you’re all smart enough to know that if you feel sick, you need to stay home.  So I’m not addressing that.  I’m not going to address the issue of mask or no mask, except to say that you won’t stand out either way, at present.  Some do, some don’t.  I’m not going to tell you how to wash your hands.  I’m not even going to say, don’t be a pig.  There’s plenty of expert advice out there for those issues.  I’m only going to deal with the stuff I stumbled over in my grocery shopping thus far.

The whole point is to minimize your exposure, and minimize the chance that you are spreading contagion.  It’s not rocket science.


I:  Minimize trips.

  1. Go infrequently and make a list.
  2. Ask friends if they need anything.
  3. Wash thrice:  Before you go, when you get home, and after unpacking.
  4. Take a page from the newspaper (to cover the handle of the shopping cart).
  5. Keep your distance.
  6. If you gotta cough … stay the hell out of my grocery store.
  7. Shop with your eyes.  You touch it, you bought it.
  8. Frozen food/dairy case/anything requiring you to touch a handle goes last.
  9. Now one hand is dirty (and/or, now use your hand sanitizer)
  10. If you’re not the one packing, leave your bags at home.
  11. Cash or charge:  Touchpads, signature blocks, styluses, and the like.
  12. Now both your hands are dirty (and/or use your hand sanitizer)
  13. Chat with your cashier, but … don’t thank them for being there.
  14. Optionally:  Quarantine your groceries.

I think this should be self-explanatory.  The best way to avoid possible exposure is not to go shopping.   But if you are already in the store, you add minimal additional risk if you pick up a few things for others.  If you know someone who may have a tough time getting to the store, or is in a high-risk group (elderly, or with significant existing health conditions, and so on), why not ask?


II.  Minimize hand-borne contagion.

  1. Go infrequently and make a list.
  2. Ask friends if they need anything.
  3. Wash thrice:  Before you go, when you get home, and after unpacking.
  4. Take a page from the newspaper (to cover the handle of the shopping cart).
  5. Keep your distance.
  6. If you gotta cough … stay the hell out of my grocery store.
  7. Shop with your eyes.  You touch it, you bought it.
  8. Frozen food/dairy case/anything requiring you to touch a handle goes last.  (Optionally, take another page from the newspaper.)
  9. Now one hand is dirty (and/or, now use your hand sanitizer)
  10. If you’re not the one packing, leave your bags at home.
  11. Cash or charge:  Touch screens, signature blocks, styluses, and the like.
  12. Now both your hands are dirty (and/or use your hand sanitizer)
  13. Chat with your cashier, but … don’t thank them for being there.
  14. Optionally:  Quarantine your groceries.

These should be mostly self-explanatory.  Start out with clean hands, and try touch as little as possible.

Items that one person may have handled are not the key issue here.  So (e.g.) I have no fear of picking up a box of cereal off the shelf.  The key issue is those surfaces that many different people may have touched.  And once you’ve had to touch one of those multi-user surfaces, treat yourself as if that hand is dirty (or if you’ve got hand sanitizer and believe it is effective in this case, use it.  I don’t have any hand sanitizer.)

Item 3 (wash thrice) is Centers for Disease Control advice.  Wash your hands before you go, wash them immediately upon return, and wash them yet a third time, after you’ve unpacked the groceries.  That third step is for possible surface-borne contagion, which I will address later.

The first hard issue is the handle of the shopping cart, Item 4.  If that’s contaminated, even if you use gloves to protect yourself, you may be spreading contagion to other surfaces.  Better not to touch it at all.  I considered my options, and decided that the most effective solution was to take a page from the Sun Gazette and drape it over the handle of the cart.  Arguably, the closest thing you own to a large, tough, disposable sanitary sheet is one of the inside pages of an unread newspaper.  That worked fine to keep my hands from touching the cart handle.  It was unobtrusive, and you just crumple it up when you are done and toss it in the trash.

Starting next trip, I think I’m just going to bring my own cart.  (I have one of those rolling shopping basket things, per the picture above.)  If that’s not an option for you, I recommend at least using newsprint as a disposable handle cover for the store cart.

On my next trip, I’m going to take several sheets from the Sun Gazette.  I’ll note where I plan to use them (but have not yet used them) in this writeup.

Item 7 should also be self-explanatory:  Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.  Now is not the time to be squeezing the produce, comparing nutritional labels, and so on.  If you have allergies and such, yeah, sometimes you’ll have to pick something up, check a label, and put it back.  Particularly in areas where the shelves remain skimpy.  But you get the drift.  Shop as if the rule is, you touch it, you bought it.

Items 8 and 9 are about those foods that you can’t get without touching some common surface like a door handle.  Frozen foods, for sure, and maybe dairy, depending on your store.  I have yet to figure out any non-awkward way to deal with them analogous to the cart handle.   But at the very least, do those foods  last, and if you’ve got hand sanitizer and believe it is effective against coronavirus, use it.  If not, then at that point, one hand is dirty.  Be mindful of that, and handle everything you can with the other hand from that point forward.

In hindsight, this is a step where I’m going to use more clean newspaper next time, as single-use door handle protectors.  I think I’m just going to take some hand-sized piece of Sun Gazette and use them as single-use door handle protectors.  I don’t think that will be too awkward:  Pick one up, use it to grab the handle, crumple and dispose when done.  Repeat.

(Or paper towels would work fine, if you have a bunch and don’t mind tossing each towel after a single use.  Yet a third solution might be just to bring a something to use as a hook, and use that to keep your hand from touching the handle.  But that has the potential to spread contagion from one handle to the next.  A disposable handle cover of some sort is the preferred solution.)

Items 11 and 12 are about your safety, and the checkout process, which is clearly the dirtiest part of the entire experience.  I don’t really see a good way to keep your hands clean at this point.  From a sanitation point of view, self check-out and regular check-out are quite different.  I’ve done both now.  Here’s my take on it.

Self check-out is preferred.  It increases the isolation between you and your food and the rest of humanity and its food.  Not just for the cashier handling it, but for placing your food on surfaces that others have used.  Bring your own bags if you wish, bring tools for the touch screens (stylus or gloves), and pay in cash or credit/debit as you prefer.  Quarantine your tools in a plastic bag when done.

I wasn’t smart enough to bring touchscreen tools, on my first trip, nor can I vouch that stylus or touchscreen-enabled gloves will work on grocery-store screens.  Instead, for the time being, I got by with touching the screen with my left hand, and scanning/packing with my right. One hand clean, one hand dirty.  Use the clean hand on your groceries.

Finally, the next time, I’m going to take something to cover the “scale” portion of the check stand, when weighing produce.  I’m not sure how picky those checkout stands are.  Might have to bring (e.g.) a piece of Saran wrap or something.  Just something to keep my food, after I’ve handled it, separate from everybody else’s food, after they’ve handled it.

Staffed check-out is to be used if necessaryDo NOT bring your own bags, and pay with credit/debit.  I had a very awkward moment at staffed checkout, because I had brought re-usable bags and, without thinking, handed them to the clerk.  I think that, in that instant, we both realized what a thoughtless jerk I was being.  But the clerk could not refuse to take them without insulting me, and I wasn’t fast enough on my feet to recover from my faux pas.

So now I know better:  The fewer the number of items that change hands, the better.  Keep your reusable bags at home.  Keep your cash in your pocket.

My worst mistake was in having to sign the signature pad.  I picked up the store’s stylus for doing that, and realized that under no circumstances should I have done that.  So if you pay by a method that requires signature, use some alternative.  I’ve been told you can sign with your finger (I literally did not know that), or, better, bring your own stylus.

As an aside, I cannot rule out my own stupidity here.  I use a credit card for purchases.  Some stores require a signature for that, which I now think is a health hazard.  (And, a) the credit card companies don’t require it, and b) you’d think that, for the interim, stores that routinely require a signature could relax that policy.)  But it’s possible that I could have brought out a debit card and avoided the signature step via a PIN?  No clue, because I’ve never used my ATM card as a debit card.

Obviously, in this new world, any touchless system (Apple Pay or the Samsung equivalent) is the gold standard.  If you have that, I’d suggest you use it.  I don’t have access to either, at present.


III Minimize airborne contagion.

  1. Go infrequently and make a list.
  2. Ask friends if they need anything.
  3. Wash thrice:  Before you go, when you get home, and after unpacking.
  4. Take a page from the newspaper (to cover the handle of the shopping cart).
  5. Keep your distance.
  6. If you gotta cough … stay the hell out of my grocery store.
  7. Shop with your eyes.  You touch it, you bought it.
  8. Frozen food/dairy case/anything requiring you to touch a handle goes last.
  9. Now one hand is dirty (and/or, now use your hand sanitizer)
  10. If you’re not the one packing, leave your bags at home.
  11. Cash or charge:  Touchpads, signature blocks, styluses, and the like.
  12. Now both your hands are dirty (and/or use your hand sanitizer)
  13. Chat with your cashier, but … don’t thank them for being there.
  14. Optionally:  Quarantine your groceries.

Item 5 is self-explantory:  Maintain your 6′ distance from your fellow shoppers and store workers.

That said, I note that the Pan Am Safeway remains open 24 hours a day.  I believe Giant still opens at 6 AM.  And Whole Foods is offering a special early-AM time slot for the elderly.  In any case, if you want to minimize your risks, go in the wee hours of the morning.  I can assure you that at 7 AM on a Saturday, the Safeway was not at all crowded.

Item 6 is something that I originally entitled:  Coughing at the grocery store is the new farting in an elevator.  If you cough, you’re going to get some hard looks, no matter how politely you do it.

So here’s the anecdote.  At 7 AM last Saturday, the Safeway was dead quiet.  I was in produce, and somebody, somewhere in the store, made a little cough.  You could hear it all over the store.  Just a little throat-clearer, mind you.  Didn’t sound like the perpetrator had TB or anything.  My fellow shoppers and I reacted like a herd of deer — heads came up, people were looking around.  Eye contact was made.  Were it not for the fact that we’re all trying to avoid catching a deadly disease, it would have been pretty damned funny.  As it stands, it was just an indicator of how tense we were pretending not to be.

You’ll have to make your own call on masking up.  As I understand it, CDC says that “surgical masks” (meaning, thin paper masks that are sold as “nuisance dust” masks in hardware stores) are of no value in this situation.  Elsewhere, I have read that they provide some limited benefit, just not as good as an N95 (thick, particulate-arresting) mask.  FWIW, so far, I’ve gone un-masked.  I might wear a dust mask/surgical mask on my next trip.


IV:  Addressing potential surface-borne contagion on the food and packaging itself.

And here, I mean the potential for the food itself, packaging, and other items to be contaminated.  Anything that you’d spread around with your hands, by touching surfaces in the store, that’s already been covered.

  1. Go infrequently and make a list.
  2. Ask friends if they need anything.
  3. Wash thrice:  Before you go, when you get home, and after unpacking.
  4. Take a page from the newspaper (to cover the handle of the shopping cart).
  5. Keep your distance.
  6. If you gotta cough … stay the hell out of my grocery store.
  7. Shop with your eyes.  You touch it, you bought it.
  8. Frozen food/dairy case/anything requiring you to touch a handle goes last.
  9. Now one hand is dirty (and/or, now use your hand sanitizer)
  10. If you’re not the one packing, leave your bags at home. 
  11. Cash or charge:  Touchpads, signature blocks, styluses, and the like.
  12. Now both your hands are dirty (and/or use your hand sanitizer)
  13. Chat with your cashier, but … don’t thank them for being there.
  14. Optionally:  Quarantine your groceries.

Of these, only 14 might require explanation.  Item 3 is the CDC recommendation, and item 7 is just a request that you try not to spread contagion onto the food.

For item 14, I have read so much conflicting advice, and so much scare-mongering about virus survival times, that I’m just not in a position to give advice with any weight behind it.  If you’re worried about it, set your groceries aside for a day.

As I understand it, possible virus survival times on metal surfaces are quite low, typically quoted as something like two hours.  But you will see reports that disagree.  Survival times on other surfaces such as plastic and paper may be longer.

All I can say is, if you are worried that you may have brought something back with you, set them aside for 24 hours.  I have no hard basis for choosing that time period.


V.  Be nice, but not too nice.

During my last trip to Safeway, I heard a nice lady thanking the people at the fish counter for being there.  It was a nice gesture, but it went over a bit hollow, and while the folks at the fish counter responded politely, I got the sense of a mental eye roll somewhere in the mix.

Retail work is now a hazardous occupation. But IMHO the last thing you want to do is remind the workers of that.  It’s a pretty good bet that they know it.  And you know what?  By and large, they don’t have any choice but to be there.  Or be unemployed.  No work, no paycheck, simple as that.  And they realize they aren’t getting any hazardous duty pay.

In other words, you don’t have to thank them for being there.  For most folks, they have no choice.  And they know it.

So, I’d say, respect the store workers in other ways.  Don’t get in their way.  Don’t be hawking (e.g.) the clerks restocking the frozen food section.  Keep your distance.  If they have their back to you, speak up before you pass them with your cart.  If using staffed checkout, minimize the extent to which the cashier has to handle anything that you touched.   And chat with the cashier as you normally would.


Post scripts:  Multiple errands within one trip, or a separate trip for each errand?  I’m undecided on this one, but I lean toward washing my hands as frequently as possible.  So if I have two necessary errands, I now make two trips.  The logic being that if I have picked up something on my hands in Location A, I don’t want to deposit that in Location B.

And this relates to:  Hand sanitizer.  I’m an agnostic on the efficacy of hand sanitizer in this instance, but that may just be because I’m old.  Or because I don’t have any.  Hand washing is the gold standard of effectiveness.   CDC guidelines make it clear that hand sanitizer is inferior to hand washing in its effectiveness in general.  (I.e., emphasis mine:  ” If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, and wash with soap and water as soon as you can.”) But if you have it, then by all means, use it liberally.  But wash your hands when you can.