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Health experts on how to run errands safely during the coronavirus

July 30, 2020, 1:26 PM UTC

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These days, it’s not your wallet you need to be worried about leaving at home—it’s your mask and hand sanitizer. Experts say the coronavirus spreads best in situations of close, person-to-person interactions, not unlike those that happen in stores. Now running a simple errand takes a lot more thought and planning. For consumers, browsing through a sales rack or examining an apple in the produce aisle comes with a whole new set of considerations.

But the reality is we all have to leave the house at some point. To help you get through your next snack run, Fortune asked public health and medical experts for their tips on safely running errands when things have to get done.

Their responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

Dr. Norman Beatty, professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine: “We are in a pandemic with a virus that is primarily spread from person to person. When I’m deciding to go to the store for my family, I ask myself: How essential is this errand? Having four kids myself with pets at home, our family has undoubtedly needed to stock up on supplies and food as the pandemic has pressed on. We have started to shop more in bulk and plan our meals over one- to two-week periods to avoid going to the store too often. We also leave our kids at home and will plan trips later in the evening when I get home from work.

“The surfaces of your delivered groceries could potentially be contaminated by the virus. However, we’re still learning about what happens to the virus when it lands on a surface. One study has shown that the virus remains on cardboard for 24 hours and even 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel. Recently another study has shown that the virus is not detectable 72 hours after synthetic saliva containing the coronavirus was placed on various library materials, such as hardcover and paperback books, and even a DVD case.

“I would consider using an alcohol-based wipe on the objects that you may touch with your hands within a 72-hour period, like a cereal box or a can of soup. I would also wash your hands after handling and putting away your delivered goods, and give your groceries time to “quarantine” on their own, as it seems after 72 hours the virus would no longer be a threat. 

“Is getting a haircut an essential errand? Well I thought to myself that it was not, and I told my son that we could just “buzz it,” but he was not having that idea. In his rebellion, he let his hair continue to grow, but when he started looking like Cousin Itt from The Addams Family, I knew it was time! He won that battle, and we went to go get a fresh cut. While we were at it, all the kids got haircuts. I did call the barbershop ahead of time to make sure they were enforcing best practices for preventing infection and that others were required to wear a face covering (including the barber) prior to going. 

“Deeming what is essential and how to handle these errands is something to discuss between you and your family, but trying to minimize your errands will help avoid a potential exposure that may not have been necessary.” 

Dr. Hugh Mighty, dean of Howard University’s College of Medicine: “Masks and distancing count. Prior to shopping, I would recommend making a list of the items that are needed. If public transportation is a must, then leave distance between you and the next person as much as possible. Wear your mask continuously. It is difficult to map the movement of others, so be patient when it seems many people are in a particular space, such as the fruit and vegetable area.

“If possible, use the same grocery store or merchants where you know which aisles contain which items, so that you can easily get in and out. When checking out, keep the distance of six feet or more between yourself and the person in front of you. Clean your hands when entering and leaving the store. Avoid touching your face until you have cleaned your hands. After putting items away at home, wash your hands.” 

Dr. Robert Johnson, dean of the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School: “Here in New Jersey things have gotten quite a bit better, so it’s not so much of a problem. We’re not really afraid to go out anymore. My wife and I are both in our seventies, and we were having everything delivered in the beginning.

“I noticed that the supermarket I go to now has more things that are wrapped, especially in the produce areas. I buy a lot of brussels sprouts, and the stores have gone from brussels sprouts out on the table to now brussels sprouts in packaging, and that’s at least made me feel better. Take advantage of that. Now, I realized that I don’t know what was going on when they were being wrapped, but at least it gives me a little bit more security.

“It’s cherry season now, and we make sure we’re washing everything thoroughly. The next thing is to worry about the public coming in. You rely on the store to make sure that everyone who goes into the facility is properly masked, but then there’s the issue of people picking up items and putting them back. I don’t know if there’s any way around it.” 

Nicolette Louissaint, executive director of Healthcare Ready in Washington, D.C.: “My parents are Caribbean, and they prefer to be able to pick their produce. It’s been really interesting having conversations with my mom about using Instacart to shop for things like yellow yam and green bananas. She says things like, “Your father can just go and make sure we get the good avocados,” so I haven’t been able to convince them.

“One thing that I’ve tried to remember even for myself is that once I pick up a product, I take it. I’m doing more of a visual examination. If you can, it’s good to bring wipes, but I think a lot of supermarkets have been great about providing disinfectant wipes and disinfecting grocery carts.

“When you’re loading up groceries into your car, just be mindful that it’s going from the cart to the car to your home. Make sure that before anything, you’re first cleaning your hands. When I get in the house, I’m taking off my shoes, and then I’m washing my hands first before I remove my facial covering. Then I’ll wash my hands again, and then unload everything. I always wipe down my groceries before I put them away.”