Going to a grocery store these days is like a high-stakes game of Pac-Man. It takes actual skill to stay six feet away from someone when you’re in a tiny aisle and you both want pinto beans.
The region has largely shut down as officials in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have addressed the rapid spread of the coronavirus, but everyone has to eat, making supermarkets, corner shops, and grocery stores some of the only places people still venture into.
Problem is, folks are still in a state of panic, scooping up nonperishables, toilet paper, and cleaning products, making stores crowded and tense. Social distancing is hard. And some grocery employees, still among the workers interfacing with people every day, have contracted the virus themselves.
It raises the question: Is going to the grocery even safe at this point? The answer depends quite a bit on who you are, where you live, and what stores you frequent.
Healthy individuals are generally safe to go grocery shopping while taking precautions to wash hands and disinfect bags or containers. Most stores have implemented aggressive tactics to routinely sanitize carts and conveyor belts. The biggest challenge in actually going to a store — necessary for those without the means or time to wait for delivery — is practicing social distancing while there. Some local supermarkets have taken steps to make it easier.
This week, crews installed plexiglass barriers at about a dozen local ShopRite locations to keep workers at the registers from having face-to-face contact with customers, said Jeff Brown, president and CEO of Brown’s Superstores Inc. In addition, employees who wish to wear gloves or masks can do so.
Acme Markets, which operates more than 150 stores in the region, had similar barriers installed last week, spokesperson Dana Ward said.
Both chains have put tape on the floor to designate line queuing and give customers a visual idea of how far apart six feet actually is. Whole Foods stores have similar taping, as does a Wegmans in Mount Laurel, where customers are also asked to stand behind the conveyor belt while waiting to check out. After each customer pays, the belt is sanitized, and then the next customer can begin loading groceries.
Keeping customers apart is difficult to enforce, though, especially in smaller and crowded stores, Brown said. ShopRite is making announcements over the loudspeaker and has posted signs to remind people to keep a safe distance.
“People just are used to their routine and, quite honestly, people aren’t necessarily looking at lines on the floor,” Ward said. “We’re trying to get the word out.”
Other stores, including Trader Joe’s locations, are limiting the number of customers allowed in the store at a given time to ensure people can stay as far apart from each other as possible. Mayor Jim Kenney has specifically said grocers and other essential businesses should manage store occupancy to allow for social distancing.
Brown thought about that strategy, but realized it would create a line out the door, and “then all the people in line aren’t social distancing, either,” he said. “You need to come up with workable, practical solutions for the facility.... It’s very difficult.”
He said sanitation is the real key: “You can see us scrubbing all hours of the day. That is probably your number one protection against spreading this thing.”
While grocers are working to implement new strategies in their stores, there are a few ways customers can mitigate their own risk, according to Judith J. Lightfoot, chief of infectious disease at Rowan University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine.
Limit grocery trips and go at off-peak times
While getting out to the store can feel like a breath of fresh air, customers should limit how often they’re going, Lightfoot said. She said her best advice is to go at an off-peak time when there are the fewest shoppers. And when you’re there, don’t hang out.
“Get what you need, and get in and out,” she said.
Protect yourself with sanitizer and a mask, if you’re comfortable
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended wearing a mask or a facial covering in public, and there is a shortage of masks among health-care workers, Lightfoot said she’s telling all her patients, especially those with other respiratory problems, that they should.
“Everyone should do what they need to do to protect himself or herself," she said. "I want my patients to protect themselves so they can feel comfortable.”
She said customers should use hand sanitizer before going into the store and after coming out. She also recommended wiping down the grocery cart handle and, if that’s not possible, wearing gloves.
Take note of the lines
Lightfoot said grocery stores putting lines on the floor is a great idea — it gives people a visual cue they can use not only in the store, but that they can think about outside, too.
Carefully wash food, produce, and countertops
Once you get home, sanitize bags if you brought your own to the store and thoroughly wash produce. When you’re done, wash your hands again and disinfect countertops where the groceries sat.
Go when you have time to be patient
Trips to the supermarket are going to take longer as people take steps to keep their distance from one another. Plan ahead and give yourself enough time. Lightfoot said patrons have to be patient.
“We all need to sort of stick together and get through this,” Brown said. “We have to realize we’re all under the same stresses and all doing the best we can do.”