Shopping during a pandemic has history

I am going to talk about safe grocery shopping during our very own pandemic, but first, a most interesting digression. Recently I was reading "A Journal of the Plague Year" by Daniel Defoe, a semi-fictionalized account of the 1665 Great Plague of London. I read most of it but couldn't finish because, frankly, it was too depressing in light of our current pandemic. However, I was intrigued by the strategies Londoners used to shop for groceries while their neighbors and fellow city residents died around them.

Typically, they shopped in local neighborhood markets and shops, regardless if the plague was ravaging their neighborhood or not. Merchants often left a pot full of vinegar near their stall where paying customers deposited coins. The idea was to prevent the spread of infection by purifying the coins. It didn't work because the plague was spread by fleas.

In an eerie precursor to our contemporary situation, two new food delivery services emerged and became widely used during the plague. Some families moved onto boats anchored in the Thames river in order to escape the plague. When boat dwellers ran out of food or drink, they hired men who plied the river in small boats to do their shopping for them and deliver the goods directly to the boat. The provisioners were not allowed onto the boats, but transferred the items via a bucket lowered on a rope.

Back in town, when a house had one or more residents who were ill with the plague or died from it, the city administration hired watchmen to post a 24-hour guard at the door of the house for 40 days. The main purpose was to keep remaining living members inside the house so they did not leave and infect others. In addition, watchmen had several ancillary duties including fetching food and drink for the household members.

Returning to the 21st century and the pandemic of our time, how do we as high-risk older persons safely shop at the grocery store? Actually, the best advice is don't do it. Lots of potentially contagious people exhaling droplets into the air, coughing onto the goods, and touching everything -- a very dangerous environment for vulnerable older persons. It is far safer to use a home-delivery service like the Londoners of old, or a pickup service where store employees do your shopping for you and bring it out to your car.

Modern shopping skills

If you must go shopping inside a grocery store, here are a few recommendations to help you avoid the virus:

- plan your trips so you go shopping as infrequently as possible, for example only two or three times a month

- make a list and stick to it so you can get in and out of the market as soon as possible

- go during off-hours or special hours for seniors to avoid the crowds

- bring sanitary wipes to wipe down cart or basket handles

- use sanitary wipes to open refrigerator and freezer doors

- wash hands or use hand sanitizer immediately after shopping

When you get home

Now what? Regardless of who did the shopping, you bring your purchases inside your home. How likely are you to catch the virus from your groceries or their containers? The general consensus among experts is that it is not very likely because most coronavirus is spread from person to person via exhaled droplets. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no evidence of food or food packaging being linked with the spread of COVID-19.

Still, there is at least the theoretical possibility that someone with COVID-19 coughed on your box of Cheerios, you touch it, and then you scratch your nose and end up catching the virus. So, what to do? The best research to date indicates that coronavirus might last up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to three days on plastic or metal. So, take everything that does not need to be refrigerated or frozen, and put it somewhere out of reach of the kids and pets. Leave it there for at least three days. Done. Then, wash your hands.

Vigorously rub hard-skinned fruits and vegetables with a vegetable brush under cold running water. Blot dry. Don't use soap or detergents on them because the residues can make some people quite ill. Remove and toss the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, then run cold water over the vegetables. Blot dry. Many items that need to be refrigerated or frozen are sealed in water-tight packaging. You can scrub those in cold soapy water, then rinse and dry.

Learn more at Consumer Reports ( ). All their coronavirus-related information is in front of the paywall. See also the Food and Drug Administration site ( ) and the United States Department of Agriculture site (

Learn what you can, take care, and stay safe.

Author Bio

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.

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