The last time I visited the grocery store here, it looked like my fellow shoppers had prepped to do surgery on the cantaloupes.  With everyone in gloves and surgical masks, the only thing missing was the floor length green gowns and the glare of the OR lights. Although there is reason to be cautious when you shop, it is important to have a way to assess your actual risk and put it in context.<!–more–> 

Risk is a probability game and it is important to understand the difference between possibility and probability. Four things have to happen for your milk carton to kill you. 1. Someone with virus contaminated hands has to touch the carton or someone carrying the virus has to cough on it in 24-72 hours before you select it, 2. You have to pick up that carton in just the right way to get the virus on your hands, 3. You have to contaminate yourself with your hand, 4. The virus needs to make you seriously ill. All of these things are possible, but the probability of them all happening is vanishingly small, particularly if you are not elderly and take the most basic precautions.

Let’s think about the probabilities. In the Seattle metropolitan area, one of the harder hit areas in the country, there are less than 2,000 diagnosed cases. Let us say conservatively that, for every case, there are ten asymptomatic carriers. That would give us 20,000 carriers in a population of 3.9 million people, or 0.5% of the population. Let’s say one in ten people is not exercising proper precautions. That means, for every person touching your produce, there is a 1:2,000 chance of them contaminating it. If there is a one in ten chance you pick up the virus on your finger and stick it in your mouth before wash your hands, you have a one in twenty thousand chance of infecting yourself and, depending on your age and health, you have about a one in two million chance of dying. In other words, if you estimate how many people touch your product and multiply by two million, you have your approximate risk. 

I, for one, don’t see people touching each milk carton before they pick one out. The avocadoes are a different story and I would lean towards things you can cook or peel in that part of the store (think Mexico). Wash after you unpack and let them sit at least 24 hours before you eat. The real risk, to the extent there is one, is things many people touch such as shopping carts. I don’t bother with gloves, but I do pull down the sleeves of my coat and push the cart. 

Now let’s think about the checkout line. The clerk touches every item touched by every person in the store. If there is a bagger, double that. Those latex gloves they are wearing might protect them, but as far as protecting you, it’s just another pair of hands. All that crazy caution going on in the rest of the store goes out the window.  

So, what do we do? Shop as early in the day as possible. If the store has a self-checkout line, use it. (but be cautious of the touch screen. I use the pinky finger of my left hand.). Ideally, find a store that has one. Bag your own groceries. And lose the gloves, they are a waste of plastic. Just wash your hands before and after you shop and don’t touch your face.

And what about all of those masks. Despite misinterpretation in the popular press, this is NOT an airborne disease. Someone needs to cough close to you or be so up in your grill they are spraying sputum in your face. You don’t need a mask in the grocery store. If I say that, people argue that someone might cough in their face. Since this began, I have yet to hear a single person coughing in the grocery store and in my life, I can’t remember an adult coughing in my face. So, unless you’re shopping with three-year-olds, lose the mask.

A major exception to the last rule is those checkout clerks. They are three feet away from hundreds of people in the course of a day. In my mind, they are the only people in the store who should be wearing a mask.

Bottom Line:

-Gloves are not necessary to shop. Washing before and after you shop is as effective or more so.

-The cart handle is one of the items most likely to be contaminated. Wipe it down. Push as much as possible with your left hand. Shop with your right (switch if you prefer, but you get the idea).

-Save the mask for the health care workers and the checkout clerk.

-The highest risk is the checkout line. Self-checkout if you can, but beware the screens and buttons. 

-Checkout clerks should wear a mask and be sure not to touch their faces with those gloved hands.

NOTE: One reader suggested that it would be better for people to order grocery delivery. That may be a wise choice, particularly for those who are at highest risk. I do think we can shop safely and, the more we can keep these essential services intact the better we will be able to carry on and recover.