Should I shop in stores during the coronavirus pandemic? This is what the experts say

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Retail stores across the U.S. have slowly started reopening their doors. But as tempting as it is to start perusing sale racks as soon as possible, safety is still a concern. The good news? With the right planning and precautions, shoppers can feel good about their next trip. 

Here’s what you need to know about how Coronavirus could spread in a retail environment, and steps to take before, during and after you visit the store to ensure you stay safe and protected.

How coronavirus spreads in retail stores

“Up until the last couple of weeks, the guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was that there are two major ways that the virus causing COVID-19 was transmitted: Person-to-person via airborne particles and by “secondary contact” which is touching a surface that was contaminated by particles from an infected person (like a table or a door handle) and then touching your face,” explains Dr. William Lang, Medical Director at WorldClinic.

“The more recent guidance is that both of those are still thought to occur, but person-to-person is much more important than secondary contact.”   

So, what does that mean for shopping?  

Just like shopping at the grocery store, you’ll want to keep your distance.

“While even at the worst times in the epidemic there were very, very few people in public who were infectious, you don’t know who those people are, so minimize time close to others, maximize distance and continue to wear a mask when you are near others,” says Lang. 

Though the risk of transmission via surfaces is low, Lang says it’s not a risk that should be ignored. “Continue to be careful with washing your hands regularly and especially remember to wash or use hand sanitizer immediately after you have been in a public location like a retail store,” says Lang.

Before you head to the store, get clear on the try on policy. “Many stores have policies that prohibit this right now, although some stores are allowing this, then setting aside the garment for 24 to 48 hours, after which time it is safe to go back on the racks,” Lang explains. If the store you’re shopping at doesn’t have dressing room access available, make sure you know what size you’re looking for, which will help limit your time in store as well.

Precautions to take when entering the store

Wear a mask. “While masks may have a very small role in reducing the amount of airborne particles you inhale, more importantly, they are effective in decreasing the amount of potentially infectious particles that you project through coughing, sneezing, or even talking,” says Lang.

“A relatively unusual feature about this virus that has really supported the spread is that people are infectious for about 48 hours before they develop symptoms and have no idea they are infectious. That 48 period is the reason we’re all wearing masks in public.”

 If you plan to use a shopping cart or basket, wipe it down. “This reduces the chance that there are infectious particles left behind by the last user,” says Lang. 

Sanitize your hands when you enter. “Sanitizing before you touch anything in the store reduces the risk that you could leave behind any infectious particles for others if you are infectious and don’t know it yet,” Lang explains. Repeat this step when you leave the store as well, which Lang says is especially important if you’re handling money.

How to safely bring new items home

“Early on in this epidemic, everyone was told to make sure you wipe down everything you bring into your home,” says Lang. “Since we now do not believe that surfaces play as big a role, that may not be as important, but it doesn’t mean that surfaces have no role!” Lang recommends wiping down items to eliminate risk – especially if you have vulnerable people in your home or have frequent contact with someone who’s high risk. 

As for fabrics, Lang says the data is still not completely clear, but it’s thought that fabrics don’t harbor the virus for very long. “If you set new clothing aside for a day or two, that should give time for any potential viral particles to become inactive. If you need to wear or use a fabric right away, standard washing will wash away risk immediately. You don’t need to use a heavy duty or ‘sanitize’ cycle…just wash as you normally would.”