How to Protect Yourself From Coronavirus When Grocery Shopping

Here are precautions to take whether you shop in-store or online

grocery shopping Kwangmoozaa

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention having recommended that people wear cloth, non-medical face coverings in public to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, you may wonder whether that's enough to keep you safe when you shop for food.

The CDC advisory, which is voluntary, specifically mentions groceries and pharmacies as public settings where it can be difficult to practice social distancing—that is, staying 6 feet from others—to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In those locations, the CDC recommends wearing simple cloth face coverings "to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others."

Many consumers are trying to avoid visiting grocery stores entirely, by turning to delivery services.

But whether you buy groceries online or in stores, there are several steps that you can take to limit your exposure to coronavirus, and they’re not so different from what CR recommends you typically do. Be sure to:

More on Coronavirus

Wash nonporous containers. The FDA says there’s no current evidence to support the transmission of the virus from food packaging. But if you’re concerned, it can’t hurt to wipe down non-porous containers like glass or cans with disinfectant wipes.

If that’s not practical, wash your hands well after putting away all packaging, including paper boxes and bags. "It all comes down to hand hygiene," says Liz Garman, a spokesperson for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology in Arlington, Va.

It also doesn’t hurt to wash your hands after opening the containers and using their contents.

"But if you use a pasta box a few days after you get it, there is little likelihood that the virus could still be live on the box and cause an infection," says Eike Steinmann, a virologist at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum in Germany who has studied how long viruses live on different surfaces.

One preliminary study found that the coronavirus responsible for the current pandemic doesn’t survive on cardboard longer than 24 hours. Results of the study, conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and other experts, were published on March 17 in a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Wash your hands, counter, and other surfaces you’ve touched. Do this after you’ve put away the groceries. Keep in mind that using a disinfectant isn’t necessary unless you’re sharing a space with someone who is exhibiting signs of respiratory illness or has been exposed to the virus.

Wash produce. Rubbing fruit and vegetables under running water—and scrubbing those with hard skins—can help remove pesticides.

But there’s no data to show that COVID-19 is spread by consuming food, says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., Consumer Reports’ director of food safety research and testing. "The risk of getting the virus from your food is considered low," Rogers says. (Read more about coronavirus and the food you eat.)

Other steps may not make much difference. For instance, buying frozen vegetables rather than fresh under the assumption that they’re packed in a more sanitary way is not an approach that has been backed up by evidence, Rogers says.

If You’re Getting Your Groceries Delivered

Even if a grocery store or warehouse is thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis, the delivery person needs to take the same precautions to prevent the spread of a virus to you.

Among the six services in our review of grocery delivery services, AmazonFresh, Amazon Prime Now, Instacart, and Shipt employ independent contractors for deliveries. Instacart has begun offering up to 14 days of pay to all shoppers—including independent contractors—sidelined by coronavirus, plus sick pay to its part-time in-store shoppers. (In response to a recent walkoff by some of its shoppers who demanded more workplace protections, Instacart also announced it was providing free "health and safety kits" including a washable cloth mask, hand sanitizer, and a reusable forehead thermometer that workers could order from the company.)

FreshDirect and Peapod delivery personnel are company employees. Walmart, which wasn't part of our ratings, uses DoorDash for deliveries.

While those companies might recommend that deliverers wash their hands often, practice other hygiene measures, and stay home when they’re feeling sick, they can’t monitor whether drivers are actually taking those precautions, says Erin Hatton, an associate professor of sociology and a labor scholar at the University of Buffalo. “And without paid sick leave, workers are going to try to push through as much as they can,” Hatton says.

So follow these steps when ordering deliveries:

Avoid a direct hand-off. Arrange to have the items delivered to your doorstep or a place nearby instead. Instacart added that option last week; other companies have a way to indicate special delivery instructions on their order forms. FreshDirect says its drivers will no longer bring groceries into a home.

Tip electronically. One benefit of ordering deliveries online or via an app is that you don’t have to hand the delivery person money. Opportunities to tip the delivery person are included in most of the delivery apps and online ordering systems.

Order earlier than you usually do. Though it's not a safety issue, you may find that in the midst of higher demand you have to wait longer. FreshDirect, for instance, mentions on its home page that delivery times are filling up faster than usual. Amazon Prime Now, which chiefly delivers from Whole Foods, also mentions that “availability may be limited,” though it’s not clear whether that means delivery times are limited, items are limited, or both. (An Amazon representative didn't respond to a CR request for comment.)

If You’re Picking Up Prepacked Groceries

The steps are basically the same for this option as for delivery. If you’ve ordered and are merely having someone put the groceries in your car in a parking lot—an option at about 3,000 Walmart locations nationwide—consider opening your car door yourself rather than having the person bringing the items to your car touch the handle. And if you can tip on a supermarket’s app, do so rather than handing over cash. (Walmart’s employees aren’t permitted to take tips.)

If You're Buying Groceries in a Store

A key way to prevent the virus’s spread is to stay 6 feet away from other people. The CDC notes that's generally the distance within which people pick up coronavirus droplets through the air from a cough or sneeze. Such “social distancing” is a good strategy in any situation outside the home, Rogers says. Other ideas:

Go shopping at a time that’s less busy. If you type in the store’s name and location in Google search, a box often will pop up showing when foot traffic there is highest.

Wear a face covering. The new advice from the CDC on face masks is voluntary. The agency says the non-medical coverings can be "basic cloth or fabric masks." The New York City Health Department, which recently put out a directive to citizens to cover their faces when outside their home, defines a face covering as "any well-secured paper or cloth (like a bandana or scarf) that covers your mouth and nose," and offers best practices for how to put it on, wear it, and remove it.

It's not necessary to use surgical masks or N-95 respirators, the CDC stresses. "Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders," the agency says.

Take germicide with you. Use it to wipe your hands and the cart before and after you shop.

Use a credit or debit card. That way, you don’t have to hand over bills or receive change. Also, use your own pen to sign receipts. If you can, use a virtual payment system like Apple Pay so that you don't have to open your wallet at all.

Editor’s Note: This article, originally published on March 9, 2020, has been updated to clarify our guidance on how to handle produce and food packaging, as well as news on Instacart's delivery service, how long coronaviruses live on cardboard, and whether to use a face covering.

When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.

Tobie Stanger

I cover the money side of home-related purchases and improvements: avoiding scams, making sense of warranties and insurance, finding the best financing, and getting the most value for your dollar. For CR, I've also written about digital payments, credit and debit, taxes, supermarkets, financial planners, airlines, retirement and estate planning, shopping for electronics and hearing aids—even how to throw a knockout wedding on a shoestring. I am never bored. Find me on Twitter: @TobieStanger