Social distancing is the new norm. Restaurants, bars, non-essential stores and libraries are closed. Many states, including Michigan, have enacted shelter-in-place orders to ensure citizens stay at home unless they have essential jobs or need essential items like groceries or medicine.
Although most people are staying inside, some are still nervous about contracting the virus while at the supermarket or even just opening the mail. These fears are warranted: since COVID-19 is a new virus, everything scientists know about it is developing in real time. Unlike other common viruses like influenza, there are few absolutes when it comes to COVID-19.
While it’s always advised to take every precaution, a bit of good news is developing. Experts believe touching surfaces is a low-risk way to contract the virus. Coronavirus can be detected on surfaces for hours or days, depending upon the material—it’s thought that it can be detected on plastic for around three days and cardboard for a day. But that doesn’t mean it stays just as potent for that length of time, says Jennifer Burgess, D.O., a family medicine doctor with Henry Ford Health System.
That said, low risk doesn’t mean no risk. Some of the most important things to disinfect frequently are the objects you touch often: phones, wallets, credit cards, keys. And there are other scenarios you might find yourself in, wondering how to prevent transmission.
It’s a good idea to disinfect areas of your car that are touched often (car door handles, steering wheels, ignition, touch screens, keys). Keep disinfectant wipes in the car for easy touch ups, Dr. Burgess says, and you’ll have peace of mind that germs will be limited.
Some say it’s a good idea to keep groceries outside for three days, but Dr. Burgess says this is not necessary—and it’s also not possible when you have perishable items. A better idea is to unload groceries and, instead of reusing the grocery bags, recycle or throw them away and then wash your hands. Even better? Bring your own canvas bag to the grocery store, bag your own groceries, and wash the canvas bag after unloading them. (Some stores are limiting use of reusable bags, so just be sure to follow your store’s policy.)
If you’re worried about contracting the virus from fresh produce—after all, people touch avocados for tenderness and apples for crispness—know that the risk is low. As of March 17, there have been no known cases of transmission through fresh produce, and it’s thought that the virus may not live on food very long. Burgess recommends washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly with cold water.
The biggest grocery-store risk comes from human contact, says Dr. Burgess. Since COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, transmission most commonly occurs from someone sneezing or coughing, as this can carry droplets from one person to the next.
“When you’re at the grocery store, wear gloves, try to stay six feet away from everyone else and wash your hands when you return,” says Dr. Burgess. “Throw the gloves into the garbage once you leave the store. If it’s possible, have only one person in your family get groceries. The fewer people out and about is safer for everyone.”
Also, remember to follow the recently updated guidelines on mask-wearing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when out in public—especially indoors or when interacting with people is necessary such as at the grocery store checkout.
Since restaurants are not allowed to have people dine in, many of them have been promoting carryout deals. Feel free to use this as a dinner option, as it’s considered low risk, says Dr. Burgess. At this time, the CDC and USDA are not aware of any cases of COVID-19 that have been contracted through food. Even if you ate food infected with COVID-19, your stomach would probably quickly degrade the virus and it would not reach your lungs.
It’s also unlikely that you’d get the virus from touching carryout containers, but you can still take smart precautions. “Once you get home with the food, put it on your own plate, throw away the container it came in, and wash your hands before eating,” says Dr. Burgess.
Another factor to consider? “Restaurants already have safety measures in place to prevent transmission of diseases and viruses,” says Dr. Burgess. “During flu season, we’re still willing to get takeout. If you can get takeout during flu season, you can get takeout during COVID-19. Just wash your hands, be smart and take precautions.”
Mail and packages are low-risk ways to contract the virus. If you can leave packages outside for a few hours, do so, but it’s also not likely that you’ll contract the virus by opening paper mail or a cardboard box, says Dr. Burgess.
And whatever’s inside the package carries minimal, if any, risk. The amount of time it took to be transported to your doorstep is likely long enough for the virus to become inactive. But again, it will not hurt to open the package, throw the box away and immediately wash your hands. (Sensing a theme here?)
If you’re someone who works in an essential job, your clothes may be a risk factor. “I am a medical worker, so I am leaving my clothes outside and then coming home and showering because I don’t want to take that chance with my family,” says Dr. Burgess. “I recommend changing and showering before having contact with others. Just like if you were ill with anything else, you can use the same soaps and detergents as you did before COVID-19.