Here's How to Shop Safely in Person During a Pandemic
In the days before COVID, brick and mortar shopping was a stressful affair—or so we thought. The crowds, the lines, the parking, the, as my Jewish grandmother used to say, schlepping. But now, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, shopping has achieved previously unimaginable new heights of stress. Today, simply walking into a store can have an actual (and, frankly, scary) impact on your physical health, at least if proper precautions aren’t taken. Fortunately, there are things you can do to mitigate that risk, especially if stores and retail establishments do their part. To get you up to speed on the safest way to shop IRL, we spoke with Erin Bromage, associate professor of biology and immunology at the University of Massachusetts, and Jen Sey, the chief marketing officer for Levi’s Strauss & Co.
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First off, the thing to remember is that, no matter what you read, whether here or elsewhere, you should always consult the CDC’s current COVID-19 guidelines, as well as any local rules and procedures, before heading out. That said, there are definitely a number of precautions you can make a regular part of your shopping routine to help minimize risk of both transmission and infection of the coronavirus.
For Bromage, the key to remember is that length and/or concentration of exposure to the coronavirus has the biggest impact when it comes to infection. “It comes down to how long you spend in the store and how many people are in the store,” he says. “If you are only in there for a short period of time, and they’re restricting occupancy, then the risk is low.” Not as low as being outdoors, he says, “but if you’re wearing a good mask, you’re not putting yourself at risk if you’re in there for 30 to 45 minutes.”
Keep Your Distance
If you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with other customers, the risk of infection is a lot higher. So even with a mask, make sure to keep your distance from other people as best you can, and minimize your time inside. “If you’re three, four feet away and you’re talking to somebody, a matter of minutes is all that’s needed [for infection] if you’re unmasked.” Which is why, according to Bromage, the most dangerous spot in a store is at the register, during cashier/customer interaction. “What we aim for is, six feet away is good, 10 feet away is better, but that’s not realistic if you’re going into a retail store.”
Bromage says that you should also pay attention to the amount of people inside. “If you walk into a store and find that it’s crowded, come back later,” he says. That’s not only for your own safety, but for others as well. “You need to think: 'Am I adding to this problem if there’s just too many people in there?'” If the crowd in a store does look manageable, the next thing to do is to maintain spacial awareness once inside. “Just be a good, courteous citizen,” says Bromage. “Step to the side if someone is trying to come down the path. Just create that extra space between everybody so that you are minimizing proximity interactions.”
Avoid Interaction in High-Risk Zones
Jen Sey mentions splash guards at checkout as a key safety feature for all Levi’s stores. “In the U.S., we worked with an epidemiologist on the roll out of our store openings to help guide us with the most responsible practices,” she says. And not only do those practices include splash guards, but something else that Bromage is a big fan of—touchless payment. “One of the big things that came out of China and South Korea is setting up a way to pay with their phones,” says Bromage. “It drops any chance of an interaction between you and the teller.” Which, of course, keeps you both safer.
Along with splash guards and touchless payment, limiting customer capacity is another important step that a store can take to keep people safe. “We have had to adjust to new ways of interacting with our customers,” says Sey, “which is challenging when you have to stand six feet apart, and both are wearing masks.” For Sey, this means not only limiting the capacity inside Levi’s stores, but inside dressing rooms, too.
Pay Attention to What the Store is Doing
According to Bromage, how a store treats its employees, and how those employees behave, is really one of the best indicators for how safe of an environment it is. Being mindful of all necessary precautions and behaving as such “is a way to model behavior for customers,” he says. “If you walk into a store where half the employees have masks pulled down around their chin, and managers aren’t saying anything, I’d just leave.” To that end, Jen Sey says that at Levi’s, “we want everyone to feel confident and comfortable knowing we are taking every precaution to make it safer to shop.” Examples that Sey highlights include safety supplies, like face coverings and gloves (provided to all store employees), symptoms screenings for employees returning to work, and paid sick leave for all employees.
Along with visible evidence of stores taking precautions—masks, splash guards, etc.—communication about what’s going on behind the scenes is also important. At Levi’s, this includes in-store signage detailing all measures taken to make the environment as safe as possible. “We talk about our cleaning frequency, we remind people of social distancing, we encourage cashless payment, and we really highlight what we are doing from a safety perspective,” says Sey. For his part, Bromage has helped local businesses in his own community to develop what he calls a safety marketing plan for what is going on behind the scenes. Included are signs in store windows, as well as an email campaign to inform regular customers about the actions being taken. Basically, he says, it’s something to say, “You are our guests, we want you here, but this is what we are implementing to protect our staff and to protect you. And we need you to buy in on that.”
Wear a Mask, Touch Less Stuff, and Clean Your Hands
Finally, one of the most important things you can do is to always wear a mask, and then also make sure to keep your hands clean. Hand sanitizer is an essential, says Bromage, “not to use every time you touch something, but you should fairly regularly sanitize your hands.” He also says to try to minimize what you touch. “Browse more with your eyes; that keeps everybody safer. And then, when you’re certain that you want to try it on or buy it, you touch it.”
It’s certainly a far more involved process to shop during this coronavirus nightmare. But by following the advice above, and listening to what the experts tell you, it doesn’t have to be a life or death situation. Just be smart, be considerate, and most of all, be safe.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.