The primary concern for shoppers is other people, not food. Though shoppers might worry about infecting themselves by handling the same apple or Cheerios box as someone else, health experts say transmission through food or its wrapping is largely avoidable. Research suggests that the virus can exist on cardboard food packaging for a day, and on plastic for several days, but it becomes less infectious over these periods. “My recommendation is just to wash your hands after you handle external packaging,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, says. “High-touch” objects such as shopping-cart handles are a bigger concern, but many stores have provided sanitizing wipes for those.
Coughing humans, meanwhile, can be harder to escape. This is a manageable risk for shoppers who can go to the store at odd hours and use the self-checkout. But at a high risk of infection are the cashiers themselves, who stand just a few feet from hundr of customers a day. They might pick up the virus through food and money the customer touches. And “if the customer coughs or sneezes near an employee while in line, the likelihood of transmitting the virus through respiratory droplets is also high,” says Brandon Brown, a professor at UC Riverside who has studied infectious diseases.
In this way, the pandemic has put grocery–store stockers and cashiers in an impossible situation. The country can’t simply shut down grocery stores. Along with pharmacies, they’re an important lifeline for homebound Americans. But even essential shopping can endanger low-paid workers who are not trained in pandemic preparedness and have little choice but to show up for work.
To try to mitigate this threat, workers at various grocery stores have asked for face masks, says Hilary Thesmar of the Food Industry Association, or FMI, a trade group of grocery stores. FMI requested masks for workers from the federal government, she says, but it hasn’t been able to procure them, because there’s a national shortage and the priority is health-care workers. Marc Perrone, the president of the UFCW, says the union is pushing for the government to consider grocery–store workers on par with first responders, which might give them access to masks and gloves.
Even then, wearing masks and gloves might violate a store’s rules. A Trader Joe’s employee in New York, who requested anonymity, said workers at their store have been told they are not allowed to wear gloves at the registers. “They don’t want to alter the appearance of normalcy,” the worker told me through a Twitter account associated with a Trader Joe’s workers’ collective. (A spokesperson for Trader Joe’s denied this, saying in an email, “While the CDC does not recommend use of gloves in a retail setting, our Crew Members may choose to wear them.”)