In the Bay Area, where “shelter in place” orders are keeping residents homebound except for “essential” trips, grocery stores, farmers’ markets and pharmacies are some of the only places people can go.
In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti stood with representatives of the grocery store industry in a video briefing on Monday aimed at reassuring Angelenos that the food supply is stable and urging us not to hoard things we don’t really need.
Dr. John Swartzberg, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, told me packed supermarkets could be the “site of the greatest risk to having social distancing work.”
People lined up outside the stores to shop, people waiting to check out: “It’s exactly what we railed against with the Warriors and the San Jose Sharks,” he said. “It has to be fixed, and it has to be fixed ASAP.”
Although the shelter-in-place orders have made the situation more urgent, almost a week ago — when we asked for your questions about the outbreak — readers told us they wanted to know how people could minimize their risk if they have to go to the store.
Phillip Schuyler Carskaddan, of Redlands, for instance, asked whether open produce at the supermarket was safe, and whether a little diluted bleach could clean it. (Yes — and more on that shortly.)
I talked with Dr. Swartzberg and Jeff Nelken, a food safety expert based in Woodland Hills, about what to know to make your trip to the supermarket as safe as possible:
If you have to go to the store, touch as little as possible and sanitize all the stuff you buy when you get home.
Mr. Nelken noted that most produce is placed on displays by hand — sometimes they’re gloved. But it’s safe to assume that if a piece of produce has been out, it’s been handled by at least 10 people.
He recommended misting produce with a very diluted bleach solution (a teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water) and letting it air dry. Or, if you’re nervous about using bleach on something you’ll eat, he said you could use a disinfecting wipe.
Other goods are less risky, but it’s still worth wiping down cardboard boxes of crackers or other packaged items.
Mr. Nelken said one thing to watch out for is your reusable grocery bags: “When was the last time you sanitized your favorite bag?”
Also, wash your hands and maybe wash your hair.
Dr. Swartzberg underlined the advice you’ve been hearing from health officials: Hand soap really will protect you.
“One thing about this coronavirus,” he said, is that “it’s very susceptible to disinfectants and soap and water.”
That said, if you go to a store, touch a contaminated surface, then touch your hair and then your face, even once between hand-washing, you could become infected.
So, he said, if you’re really concerned, it might be worth throwing your clothes in the wash and showering after you get back from the store. (Your shoes, he said, are probably fine to bring into the house.)
Ultimately, though, the best thing to do is stay away from other people, particularly if you’re part of a vulnerable population.
Although state health officials released guidelines for grocery stores saying they should limit how many customers are in a given store and should keep people at least six feet apart even when they’re in line, this is proving to be easier said than done.
The Los Angeles Times reported that seniors hoping to get into a Monrovia Trader Joe’s during a special early-shopping period were greeted with confusion.
Both Dr. Swartzberg and Mr. Nelken said grocers would need to come up with more sustainable ways to update customers in real time.
“I think the first thing we need to avoid is just showing up,” Mr. Nelken told me.
For now, he suggested calling the store you’d like to visit before you leave, both to inquire about the wait and what’s in stock.