Grocery stores, like hundreds of other businesses, are adapting to the novel coronavirus, and while it could take weeks or months before we fully understand the ramifications, they are still the safest and best option for getting the things that we need to sustain ourselves, experts say.
The key, they say, is doing what we should have been doing all along: washing our hands and the products we take home before consuming them.
Kevin C. Kenny, a Maryland-based regulatory attorney, advises food manufacturers on such matters as food and product safety and has spoken to governments and manufacturers in more than 40 countries about food, chemicals and plastics regulation.
He said all of his speaking and travel engagements started canceling about three months ago. He, like many Americans, has been holed up at home — in his case with a "highly sensitive asthmatic" — so he feels qualified to talk about food safety, especially as it relates to grocery stores.
Kenny, who is a member of the regulatory committees of several major food, cosmetic and consumer product associations in the U.S. and Europe, said people should be cautions about crowds and contact with others at the grocery store. But he believes the products sold at grocery stores are relatively safe. The virus, he said, can live on cardboard for 24 hours and about three times that on steel and plastic.
"But most of the products in a grocery store were shipped from somewhere else and most often sat in a back room for two or three days," he said.
Of course, employees then have to take the product from the storeroom to the shelves. Some area grocery store employees are wearing gloves, but the gloves are becoming scarce.
Concerned shoppers should wash the the groceries when applicable and some experts even advise wearing gloves when removing items from boxes at home, or even letting the items sit for a day or two.
Washing is the key according to researchers at Purdue University in Indiana.
"From all indications, the virus that causes COVID-19 appears to be transmitted just like other viruses," Amanda Deering, an extension specialist in Purdue's Department of Food Science, said in a new release. "This is very positive in that the same practices that we normally use to reduce contamination risk, such as washing your hands and washing fruit and vegetables before eating, should be applicable to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19."
Whole Foods has posted on its website that shoppers over 60, who have a higher risk factor of being affected by the virus, can begin shopping at 7 a.m. when fewer people are in the store. It is also limiting the number of customers in the store at one time to 30 and has put tape barriers at its entrance to keep people at the recommended 6-foot safe distance.
The store's website lists the extra measures to ensure the safety of shoppers and employees, such as closing two hours earlier to allow employees time to restock and suspending food sampling, hot bars, salad and soup bars and self-serve pizza stations. Seating in dining areas and taprooms is also shut down, but takeout is available.
Food City is also allowing seniors 65 and older, as well as people with an underlying illnesses, to shop early from 7-8 a.m.
Company President/CEO Steve Smith posted an open letter to shoppers on the company's website outlining steps the grocer is taking to minimize the impacts of the coronavirus. Smith stated that the grocery store chain has heightened its sanitization practices by training employees on proper handwashing procedures, placing hand sanitizers at the cash registers and suspending product sampling. Self-service stations that allow customers to get ready-to-eat items such as soups, salads and wings, are also suspended.
Kenny said his family gets takeout from a favorite restaurant once a week and gets groceries two or three times a week.
"Others might have a different opinion, but it makes sense to me to buy groceries and prepare and cook them yourself," he said.
Charlie Turner lives in the Fort Oglethorpe area near a Food City, which reported last week that it was hiring another 1,200 people across its four-state footprint to restock the shelves. Since the outbreak, Turner said his family have made just a few trips to the grocery store and the family is trying to get much of what it needs with fewer trips.
"We also have been going through drive-thru lines ordering our food," he said.
Steven Marshall said in a text that the COVID-19 scare has caused his Brainerd-based family to rethink its shopping habits.
Tips for Safe Shopping
Try to shop alone, leaving children and senior family members at home.
Bring sanitation wipes and hand sanitizer with you if possible.
Wipe down the grocery cart or basket, or bring your own bag.
Try to only touch what you plan to buy.
Practice social distancing, even at checkout if possible. Many stores now have plastic or glass partitions in place separating shoppers and cashiers.
Pay with your smartphone app or credit card, but wipe it down before and after using it.
Use hand sanitizer before getting back into your car.
Wash your hands as soon as possible and again after storing your groceries.
Wash fruits and vegetables before eating, and again after.
Source: Purdue University, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital
"We try to shop once a month and get all we need, so, yes, we have CHANGED up our habits a lot."
Laura Thered in Red Bank said she is still going to the store at the same frequency — about once per week — but has changed other habits.
"My frequency and hours haven't changed, however, my cleanliness strategies are much higher," she said in a text.
T&T Produce in Ringgold announced on its Facebook page that it is now offering produce boxes that are pre-selected and pre-packaged for pick-up. The $20 "immunity box" contains fruits and vegetables such as apples, oranges, lemons, onions, potatoes and kale, while the $25-dollar "greens box" contains broccoli, cucumbers, lettuce, apples and avocados, among other items.
One thing that Kenny said he does worry about is that we could face a long-term challenge regarding where the foods that stock our grocery stores will come from.
"We all want fresh strawberries and raspberries, but who will pick them?" he said late last week. "A lot of our clients are food manufacturers like Coke and Pepsi and Nestle. What about the supply chain if they can't get the ingredients we need? I'm convinced that even if this only lasts one month, we will have a six-month problem to be worked out."
He said many of the ingredients used in food products are made in China. When officials shut down plants at the height of the pandemic there, the work moved to Thailand and Vietnam, which have since closed their plants as the coronavirus spreads. Another worry is the "nationalist tendencies with food that can occur," he said.
"What if Russia decides to not let its wheat out of their country, for example," Kenny said. "It's like peeling an onion, once you look at this, and none of us has any idea."
Area stores have seen a rush of customers buying up certain staples such as toilet paper and cleaning products. Last weekend, things seemed almost normal at the Publix on North Market Street as far as the number of cars in the parking lot and shoppers and workers in the store, except for the empty shelves that usually would be stocked with everything from frozen dinners to hygiene products to basics like cooking oil and sandwich bags.
Some local businesses have already taken advantage of a potential opportunity. As a result of a mandate from Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke that restaurants cease offering dine-in options, local bakery Niedlov's Breadworks has cut its staff from 55 to under 20, according to retail manager Ian Kizer. However, in order to keep people working and to sell its bread, it has been supplying Pruett's on Signal Mountain and Whole Foods with loaves.
"Both are helping us tremendously, and it is an awesome thing because they are helping us and keeping bread on their shelves, but by no means is it going to replace everything that has been lost with the restaurants," Kizer said. "Some of our biggest restaurants that we supply to aren't even opening their doors."
Contact Barry Courter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6354.