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How to shop safely at the supermarket during the COVID-19 outbreak

We explain the new rules around hygiene and social distancing Woolies, Coles, Aldi and more.

using hand sanitiser at the supermarket coronavirus
Last updated: 28 April 2020

Confused by the new social rules during the COVID-19 pandemic and what you should and shouldn't do on a visit to the supermarket? 

Supermarkets must adhere to strict hygiene measures in stores, which have been put in place by the Australian Government to keep staff and customers safe during this period of community lockdown. 

Customers must also follow some essential new rules when shopping at the supermarket to ensure everyone's shopping experience is a safe one.

We've compiled a comprehensive guide so you're aware of your responsibilities while grocery shopping to keep everyone safe. 

1. Shop infrequently

The fewer visits you make to the supermarket and the more you stay at home, the less risk you have of contracting the virus. 

Limit your supermarket visits by planning ahead. Write a shopping list of everything you might need to last a whole week, and preferably write it on paper instead of your phone to avoid having to use the phone instore and potentially contaminating it. 

'Contactless' home delivery of groceries is an ideal option, and while Coles and Woolworths had suspended this due to unprecedented demand they've both since re-opened the service for all customers. 

Write your shopping list on paper instead of your phone to avoid having to use the phone instore and potentially contaminating it

Coles and Woolies also have dedicated shopping hours for people with disabilities and the elderly, although the current recommendation is for anyone over the age of 60 to get their groceries delivered.  

Designate one person per household to visit the supermarket at a time to reduce the potential for infection. If you're unwell, stay at home and ask a family member, friend or neighbour to shop for you.

Another option for vulnerable customers is to use Woolworths Community Pick Up, Coles Priority Click and Collect, and IGA Priority Shop. You just need to appoint someone to pick up your online order from the store. 

Just note that instore product limits also apply to home delivery and store collection orders.

person making shopping list

Write a shopping list of everything you might need to last a whole week.

2. Wash your hands 

Maintaining good hand hygiene is essential in the fight against COVID-19. Before visiting the supermarket, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, and while at the supermarket avoid touching your face or eating. 

Some supermarkets now offer hand sanitiser to customers as you enter and leave their stores. 

You could also disinfect your trolley or basket handle. Some stores are already doing this or providing customers with wipes to use.

When you get home, unpack your shopping, and wash your hands with soap and water again. For more information on the most effective way to wash your hands, visit the Australian Government's Health Direct website.

person with a trolley social distancing

Imagine slightly more than a trolley length between yourself and the person next to you.

3. Stick to store guidelines on social distancing

Maintaining a social distance of 1.5m between yourself and other shoppers will limit your risk of catching or passing on the virus. 

Woolworths provides an example of what 1.5m looks like, suggesting you imagine slightly more than a trolley length between yourself and the person in front or behind you. 

Supermarkets all have clear floor markings in store to indicate this distance to customers, particularly at checkout points where customers queue. 

It may seem difficult at times to meet the 1.5m space requirement when navigating the aisles, but by being patient and courteous while waiting for other customers to move, it is achievable.

4. Only handle items you're going to buy 

Food Standards Australia (FSA) states that product packaging is not known to present any specific risk to consumers. COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness and there's no current evidence that it can be transmitted through food or linked to contamination of food. 

However, the COVID-19 virus can survive on some surfaces for between a few hours and up to several days depending on the type of surface and temperature or humidity of the environment. So it makes sense to only touch the products you intend to buy.

Should I wash my groceries when I get home?

You should always wash fruit and vegetables under running water before you eat them. This was the advice before the pandemic, and still applies now. And while COVID-19 isn't likely to be transmitted to humans from meat in Australia, you should still practice good food hygiene to avoid the risk of food poisoning.

Any anecdotal suggestion that you should wash your food with cleaning products such as soap, detergent or disinfectant to avoid catching COVID-19 isn't recommended. These are cleaning products that aren't meant for human consumption, and are unsafe to use with food.

Washing your food with cleaning products such as soap, detergent or disinfectant isn't recommended

As it's not known how long the virus survives on most surfaces (studies suggest it may be between a few hours and up to several days), there's no definitive answer as to whether you should wash the packaging your groceries come in. 

If you're concerned, you can wipe down non-porous items with common household disinfectants that are designed to kill viruses. You should also clean your benchtop and any other surface you've touched while unpacking your groceries, and continue practising good hand hygiene. 

5. Buy only what you need 

There should be more than enough food and products for us all on the supermarket shelves. But recent 'panic buying' by customers over the past few weeks has resulted in a nationwide shortage of essential items, such as toilet paper, tissues, hand sanitiser, flour and rice, long-life milks and jar, tin and frozen foods. 

Supermarkets and the Australian Government have assured customers that there's no issue with the supply in these products – Australia actually produces three times the amount of food it needs. 

If we all bought just what we needed at the supermarket, it's unlikely there'd be product shortages

The issue lies in increased consumer demand. Some shoppers are unnecessarily stockpiling essential items, possibly out of fear of them running out, but this leads to other people going without. The increase in demand can also be attributed to the fact people are eating and cooking at home more than usual.

Supermarkets have put limits on the number of certain products customers can buy per transaction. To actively discourage over-purchasing, the stores have also temporarily suspended their 'change of mind' refund policies.

If we all bought just what we needed at the supermarket, it's unlikely there'd be product shortages at all. So let's do that!

6. Pay by card 

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends we use our bank cards more often and avoid using cash to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Cashless payment reduces direct contact with supermarket staff at the register and is encouraged by Aldi, Woolworths and Coles on their websites.

Microbiology professor Peter White from the University of NSW told The Australian newspaper that there's a risk posed by cash transactions and warned that a virus could remain infectious on objects including Australian polymer banknotes for "anywhere between six and 24 hours depending on the temperature and humidity".

A virus could remain infectious on Australian polymer banknotes for anywhere between six and 24 hours

Woolworths and Coles have taken it a step further, increasing the limit on 'tap and go' card transactions that don't require a PIN from $100 to $200 to prevent the spread of the virus while touching PIN pads.

If you do pay in cash at the supermarket, make sure you avoid touching your face and sanitise or wash your hands with soap as soon as possible.

person paying with card

Cashless payment reduces direct contact with supermarket staff.

7. Pack your own bags 

You can continue to bring your reusable bags with you to the supermarket, but be prepared to pack your own groceries at Woolworths, Coles and IGA if you do. Both Coles and Woolies supermarkets have imposed this rule to further reduce the contact customers have with their staff.

Wash your reusable bags according to their individual care instructions. As a general guide, most fabric bags can go in the washing machine, reusable plastic bags can be wiped over with disinfectant, and jute bags are best washed by hand in warm soapy water and left to dry in the sun.

If you don't want to bring your own bags, you can continue to buy thick reusable plastic bags at the supermarket checkout. 

8. Be patient and remain courteous 

As a result of heightened tensions and empty shelves at the supermarket, frustrated customers have been abusing supermarket staff.

This has become so prevalent that recently the four big supermarkets – Aldi, Coles, IGA and Woolworths – jointly released a full page newspaper advertisement appealing for 'courtesy and respect' for their staff.

Supermarket staff are on the front line working incredibly hard to serve communities in these extremely challenging times

Supermarket staff are on the front line working incredibly hard to serve communities in these extremely challenging times. They're essential workers whose job – ensuring customers can access the food and products we want and need – puts them at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

They deserve our respect and we can give them this by being courteous and expressing gratitude when we're at the supermarket. You can also help them by adhering to the new rules in store and extending this respect to other customers with patience and kindness.

What are supermarkets doing to keep people safe?

Australian supermarkets are working hard to ensure their staff and customers are protected. Australia's big four supermarket chains, Woolworths, Coles, Aldi and IGA, are working together on developing industry guidelines to improve on ways supermarkets are implementing new social distancing rules and improving hygiene standards.

These include more rigorous and regular cleaning practices, limiting the number of customers in the store during busy periods and ensuring customers can remain 1.5m apart at all times.

Supermarkets are regularly disinfecting trolley and basket handles, conveyor belts, checkouts and touch points such as EFTPOS machines and self-service registers. Floor markings and signs are now in checkout points to clearly indicate the 1.5m social distance required between customers. 

Some supermarkets, such as Woolworths and Aldi, have installed plexiglass shields at checkout points, while others have reduced the number of checkout points open to increase the distance between each customer.

What if a supermarket employee is diagnosed with COVID-19?

According to the NSW Health Authority, employees diagnosed with COVID-19 are to be isolated and must follow the directions of public health authorities and remain in isolation until they've fully recovered.

The supermarket would work with local public health authorities to rapidly trace close contacts of the infected employee to minimise further spread of the virus. Fellow employees who had been within 1.5m of the infected employee for two hours or more in the previous 24 hours since the diagnosed staff member experienced symptoms would also be isolated.

Two staff at a Melbourne Coles supermarket were recently diagnosed with COVID-19 and immediately put into isolation. In a statement to 9News, a spokesperson from Coles said, "Coles has conducted a full clean of the stores over and above the recommendations from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (Department of Health), which has confirmed that the stores can continue to trade and the risk of transmission for customers and team members is very low," it read.

"In addition to criteria on hygiene and social distancing practices, the guidelines specify that 'there is no requirement to close a store if a staff member tests positive for COVID-19'."

We're in this together

For over 60 years, we've been working to make Australia fairer and safer for all consumers. 

Today, we're all tackling one of the biggest challenges we've ever faced, and we're stronger when we work together.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, CHOICE experts will be here to help. We'll be working with you to stand up for consumer rights, highlighting bad business practice via our investigative journalism, and providing regular expert advice and resources.

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