Is It Safe To Shop At A Grocery Store That's Had A COVID-19 Outbreak?

A public health expert explains the risks at supermarkets.
A woman wears a mask as she leaves a grocery store in Montreal on April 10.
A woman wears a mask as she leaves a grocery store in Montreal on April 10.

Grocery store employees are among the heroes of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re putting their own health on the line for other people, but unlike the (obviously heroic) doctors and nurses, they had no reason to believe their job would risk their safety, and many of then are working for minimum wage or only slightly above it.

But despite everyone’s best efforts, the sheer number of people in and out of grocery stores has meant many across the country have faced COVID-19 outbreaks. Chains like Metro and Sobeys are tracking cases online, so customers can stay informed about what happened where. Others, incuding Loblaws, don’t currently have a searchable online database.

So if there has been an outbreak at your local grocery store, is it still safe to shop there?

The short answer is that it probably is, but it’s more important than ever that you take precautions.

The importance of contact tracing

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, local public health authorities are informed right away, said Monika Dutt, a family and public health physician based in Sydney, N.S. From there, they work on contact tracing — essentially, doing the detective work of figuring out who that person was in contact with who may be in danger of having contracted the virus.

Once someone who’s been at a grocery store tests positive, they’ll be asked when they were there and who they interacted with. Public health officials will ask for as many details as possible, Dutt told HuffPost Canada — what time of day they were there, how busy the store was, whether there was anyone they stood particularly close to, and so forth.

Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, a little girl wears a mask at El Rancho grocery store in Dallas on May 12, 2020.
Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, a little girl wears a mask at El Rancho grocery store in Dallas on May 12, 2020.

If a cashier tests positive, or if a customer who tests positive interacted with another customer they don’t know, the store will likely put out a public notice. “It will usually say that there may have been a low-risk exposure,” Dutt said. “Because unless you were really close to the person for at least some time, you were probably at very low to no risk.”

Those notices generally tell people what they should do, depending on the situation. Often, it will involve monitoring your own symptoms for two weeks.

What to look for in a grocery store’s response

When a store does report a case, they’ll work with public health to determine if they should temporarily close, and work out details related to a re-opening. If a store is open, that usually means it’s in accordance with public health rules. But if you’re still nervous, there are a number of things to look at to see the thoroughness of their response.

Are they following the provincial guidelines? Every province, and some municipalities, have issued health and safety guidelines for grocery stores to follow. (You can read B.C.’s here, or Toronto’s here.) Search for guidelines in your area, and see if they match what your store says they’ll do.

“From what I’ve seen, at least in my experience, [stores] are putting most of these in place,” Dutt said.

How many cases have been reported, and what’s the nature of them? If one person tested positive weeks or months ago, that’s a very different situation than multiple people testing positive recently, as was the case with a downtown Toronto Loblaws this week.

A man shops in the meat section at a grocery store in Washington, DC on April 28.
A man shops in the meat section at a grocery store in Washington, DC on April 28.

Look for public health guidance. Stores will be working with public health authorities, especially after an outbreak. Look for public health’s ongoing involvement in the store’s functioning or its re-opening, and make an effort to follow their advice.

Seek out detailed responses. The more information the store offers about what happened, when, and how they plan to deal with it, the better. If a grocery store employee has tested positive, it’s a good sign if their coworkers are getting tested, Dutt said.

Think about what kind of protections you’ve seen the store exhibit. Again, specific guidelines will differ by municipality. But if you’re not sure if you feel safe, think about what you’ve seen in the store. Do employees seem to have enough PPE? Are they regularly cleaning and disinfecting carts and checkout areas?

Remember that most places are trying their best. It’s a good idea to take as many precautions as possible. But in most cases, Dutt says, grocery stores are probably trying hard to keep their environments safe.

“I’ve really found that workplaces want to do what they need to do to make sure their place is safe... they want customers to feel safe in the store,” Dutt said.

“It’s not to say it might never happen [that a store is negligent], but I think most people are trying to be careful. In such a hard economic time, they want to be able to run their business.”

In her public health work, she’s only dealt with two cases at grocery stores. And the stores she’s dealt with, as with all the other businesses she’s come across, she hasn’t seen any hostility or resistance to public health suggestions.

Other things to remember at the grocery store

Whether or not there’s been an outbreak where you are, there are a number of steps you can take to stay safe when you’re getting groceries.

Wear a mask. They can be uncomfortable, but they’re a significant part of keeping yourself and other people safe. Here are some tips about how to wear a face mask.

Try not to make many trips. The fewer trips to the grocery store you take, the better.

Try to go alone if possible. Some people have no choice, and have to bring their children or other relatives. But as much as you can, try not to shop in groups.

Wash fruits and vegetables, and throw out plastic bags. The rules about food safety haven’t changed, Dutt said. You don’t need to be washing everything in soap and water, but you should be rinsing fruits and vegetables, which can contain bacteria like salmonella. And it’s a good idea to get rid of plastic bags.

Wash your hands. We know, you’ve heard this approximately eight billion times over the last few months. But a thorough hand washing is one of our best and more effective defences against the coronavirus. Before and after your grocery visit, make sure you’re washing your hands.

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