Grocery shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic

TORONTO — In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, grocery stores and supermarkets have proven more essential than ever, providing Canadians with daily essentials and respite from cabin fever.

But, in many ways, grocers have become the unofficial frontline in the fight against the novel coronavirus, with Canadian grocery chains taking unprecedented steps to keep both customers and employees safe.

Here is what you need to know about staying safe while stocking up:

WHAT ARE GROCERS DOING?

With containment measures well underway, the closure of many public places, and continued calls to stay home and practice physical distancing, Canada’s grocery stores have implemented unparalleled measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Cleaning and sanitation measures have been increased, with many chains reducing operating hours to keep up with new cleaning protocols. Many have also closed bulk counters, soup bars, olive bars and self-serve hot food tables.

In addition to operating with reduced hours, several of the country’s largest chains — including Sobeys, Shoppers Drug Mart, Metro and Walmart — have reserved the first hour of the day exclusively for senior citizens to shop.

Many stores are working to enforce physical distancing rules by marking spaces at check-out lines with floor stickers and hanging signs reminding patrons not to crowd each other in shopping aisles.

Many chains are increasingly encouraging consumers to shop only when necessary, echoing more stringent government recommendations to stay home as much as possible.

“We encourage you to make good use of our grocery stores and pharmacies by consolidating your purchases to limit your trips,” reads Metro’s website.

“Designate only one person in your household to do the shopping. These are simple ways to reduce traffic in our establishments and ensure that social distancing measures are respected.”

As of April 3, Costco will only allow two people to enter its warehouses under each membership card.

The country’s major chains now also allow contactless payment up to $250 for most credit cards, to reduce keypad handling.

Several chains, including Metro, Loblaw and Sobeys, have installed or are working to install plexiglass barriers at checkouts.

Metro has begun enforcing a limit for in-store traffic to limit the number of customers inside stores at any given time, causing reports of line-ups outside stores across the country.

Some grocery stores have changed their reusable bag policy in light of the outbreak. Save-On-Foods has temporarily suspended bottle returns and the use of reusable bags in stores. Loblaws has also removed the fee for plastic grocery bags at its stores, asking customers to limit the use of reusable bags. The company notes that customers who bring reusable bags will have to bag their items themselves.

Many stores have also begun staffing employees at entrances to disinfect shopping cart handles before handing them off to customers.

Some stores have even gone as far as to screen customers for symptoms. Nature’s Emporium, a health food chain in the Greater Toronto Area, has begun asking shoppers if they have traveled outside of the country or have any symptoms before entering their stores.

“Shout out to Natures Emporium for actively screening all shoppers before they enter the store,” read a tweet from a shopper. “I asked what happens if someone says ‘yes’ to the questions, and was told ‘we won’t let you shop here.’”

Grocery chains are also informing customers of their policies for sick employees.

On March 23, Loblaws announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 in an employee at a Real Canadian Superstore in Oshawa, Ont. The company said in this and other cases of employee illness, it will work with local health authorities to investigate the staff member’s direct contacts and notify customers.

“We will close immediately if we are informed of a colleague testing positive,” read a company statement.

“We know communities consider us an essential service right now, but we ask for your patience as we will remain closed for as long as it takes to deep-clean, or on the advice of public health.”

CAN THE VIRUS LIVE ON MY PRODUCE OR CEREAL BOX?

Despite increased sanitation measures at stores, many Canadians remain concerned about whether the virus can be transmitted or carried into their home on the products they purchase.

“If you’re talking about dry packaging, a cereal box, etc. again, the virus is not going to thrive on these surfaces,” infectious disease expert Dr. Abdu Sharkawy told CTV News.

“Remember that you’re getting the virus, number one, by touching it with your own hands and then touching your own face. If you are diligent with your hand hygiene and you’re not introducing anything to your mouth, your eyes or your nose, you’re going to be just fine.”

Although there is still much to be learned about the novel coronavirus, preliminary research suggests that the virus can live on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days.

A study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that traces of the virus are detectable for up to four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.

A report from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released Monday, found that traces of the virus were detectable on a number of surfaces in cabins aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship up to 17 days after passengers left.

The report says further study of COVID-19 transmission from inanimate objects “is warranted,” however, experts maintain that good personal hygiene is key in not transmitting the virus.

When it comes to wiping down your cereal boxes and canned tuna, Sharkawy notes, “If it makes you feel better and gives you peace, peace of mind, go ahead. But it’s absolutely not necessary.”

As the number of coronavirus cases in the country grows, Health Canada’s regulations for washing produce and other foods have so far remained the same.

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), “there is currently no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission of COVID-19.” The CFIA says it is prioritizing safety investigations and recalls, animal disease investigations, and inspection services during this time.

Health Canada recommends giving fruits and vegetables a good rub under running water – cool or lukewarm is preferred. The agency says it isn’t necessary to use solutions specifically designed for cleaning fruits and vegetables, known as produce cleansers.

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