'I Went Grocery Shopping With A Doctor And I'll Never Zoom Through The Aisles The Same Way Again'

Meghan Rabbitt

From Women's Health

I slip on disposable vinyl gloves and a surgical face mask, securing the elastic behind my ears. Susan Taylor-Pilarski, MD, does the same. Then, she hands me a gently used paper bag that once stored coffee beans.

"Put your mask in this after you take it off so you can reuse it," she tells me.

It’s 8 a.m. and we’re standing 6 feet away from each other in the parking lot of Alfalfa’s supermarket in Louisville, Colorado, suiting up as if we’re about to see patients. Except we’re about to go grocery shopping.

Dr. Taylor-Pilarski is a family medicine doctor with Kaiser Permanente Colorado, and she’s got the day off. These days, she’s "seeing" patients via telemedicine—and she’s also on the front lines of the battle against the novel coronavirus, testing patients with symptoms and working shifts at the hospital. "Some of my colleagues have underlying conditions that would make taking care of people with COVID-19 more dangerous for them," says Dr. Taylor-Pilarski, "so I’ve volunteered to take care of patients with symptoms."

That’s why the doctor wears a mask—and why she gives me one, too. "I’m interacting with patients so I need to be extra careful," she says. She reminds that the average person, who isn’t a health-care worker and isn’t sick, doesn’t need to wear a mask and definitely shouldn’t hoard them, because we are in a serious shortage of supplies right now.

Until the novel coronavirus outbreak, food shopping was a mundane task that I could do mindlessly, not thinking twice about it as I'd perused the aisles in my local store. Now, every seemingly trivial outing has become an opportunity to pick up (or even spread!) the virus. "Keeping distance is important," Dr. Taylor-Pilarski notes, "because we know that people can carry the virus even if they have no symptoms."

Not to mention, there is still a lot of unknown about how long the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness can survive on surfaces ranging from plastic to paper to fabric—all materials involved in food packaging and/or hauling. One recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus that causes COVID-19 was detectable for up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel and up to 24 hours on cardboard, and less is known about how this virus interacts with fabric. Whew. A lot to think about.

So, there we are—armed with disinfectant wipes as we walk toward the front entrance. "I know it may seem over the top to some people, but my theory is that it’s better to take too many precautions than too few," Dr. Taylor-Pilarski says. "You don’t want to risk you or your family getting sick if you can prevent it."

The day before we pow-wow in the store parking lot, I get an e-mail from Dr. Taylor-Pilarski with her plan of attack.


In her note, she suggests I make a list of what I need for the upcoming week on a piece of paper—not my iPhone, as I usually do—because I’ll be leaving my phone in my car. "You want to minimize the number of times you have to leave the house, which is why getting what you need for at least a week is smart," she says.

She also makes sure I plan to travel light: "The less you take into the store with you, the better," says Dr. Taylor-Pilarski, who also suggests I plan on putting my license and credit card in my jacket pocket rather than taking my purse into the store to minimize the number of things you bring into the store with you. (The more you carry, the more surfaces that have the potential to get contaminated with the new coronavirus, given that we're just not totally sure what the virus can and can't live on.)

We decide to meet an hour after Alfalfa’s opens. "Earlier is better, because that’s when stores tend to be cleanest—and least crowded, which makes it easier to stay 6 feet apart from others," she says.

She instructs me to bring a mask, disposable gloves, and disinfectant wipes or hand sanitizer. I have disposable gloves stashed in the back of my medicine cabinet and grab a pair, and I also have wipes and a travel-size antibacterial spray in my car. But I don’t have a mask.

She’ll bring me one from her stash, she says. (She's a doctor, so it's not out of the ordinary for her to have some basic masks at home.) When I ask her what people who don’t have access to any of these things should do, she tells me wipes or hand sanitizer is most important. "I know everyone is low on these, but many stores still have wipes for you to use—especially in the morning, before they run out," she says.

Photo credit: Jewelyn Butron
Photo credit: Jewelyn Butron

Next up: I have to plan my outfit. (I know, I rolled my eyes when I first read this in her note, too.) But Dr. Taylor-Pilarski explains that I should wear something I can toss in a high-heat wash after I get home. It's worth noting that changing out of your clothes immediately after an outing is another extreme precaution that there is little evidence for, but it's something Dr. Taylor-Pilarski (and many other medical pros) does to be extra careful, so I'm following her lead for the purpose of this story.

She also asks me if I have canvas bags to use rather than the coated plastic reusable totes I keep stashed in my car. Given that the new coronavirus may be able to live on plastic longer, paper seems to be better. "Canvas that you can toss into that high heat wash with your clothes when you get home is best," she adds.

"Also, don’t wear any jewelry or a watch, which the virus can land on and make it more difficult to keep your hands clean," says Dr. Taylor-Pilarski. Another who-woulda-thought tip she offers? "Pull your hair back into a ponytail or bun because if your hair is down, you’ll be more likely to touch your face."

Lastly, she says not to forget to leave a clean pair of clothes and some disinfectant wipes next to my front door—or better yet, the garage entry (if you have one)—to minimize the chance of bringing germs into the house.

A trip to the grocery store has never felt so involved—and annoying. But these strange times call for what may seem like strange measures.

When we arrive at the store, we park far away from the entrance.

We need to for a reason: It’ll give us the best shot at staying at least 6 feet away from other shoppers. We are in full-on social distancing mode, and Dr. Taylor-Pilarski is especially focused on this when she notices a woman in her 60s or 70s walking out as we’re about to walk in.

"Let’s give her a little more space," she says to me, and I realize the mindless way I usually zoom through the grocery store isn’t going to cut it now.

We grab carts and, because we’re wearing gloves, we don’t wipe down our handles with the wipes the store has provided. "Let’s save the wipes for shoppers who don’t have gloves," says Dr. Taylor-Pilarski. "And remember, don’t touch your face."

I trail her as she shops, peppering her with questions along the way. "Why are you grabbing produce from all the way in the back?" I ask. She points out, "Lower odds that other shoppers have touched it."

Dr. Taylor-Pilarski scans the store, waiting to walk down one aisle if she sees another shopper walking toward her. We’re in the baking goods aisle ("I don’t know about you, but I’m making a lot more cookies than usual," she says with a laugh) when a young guy approaches, obviously looking for a specific ingredient. Dr. Taylor-Pilarski stops, rather than attempt to maneuver past him, and he snatches the product he’s here for and then steps away quickly.

"Did you notice how he did that?" she says. "That was great. I think most people are aware of the importance of keeping as much space as possible between us. But if you see someone getting a little too close, don’t be afraid to speak up and say something like, 'Isn’t it hard to stay at least 6 feet away from each other?' It’s a nice reminder to everyone around you."

Photo credit: Jewelyn Butron
Photo credit: Jewelyn Butron

When we’re finished shopping, Dr. Taylor-Pilarski tells me that self-checkout is ideal. "It’s the safest way to maintain social distancing and reduce your risk of exposure, as well as the risk of the employees at the store—who we should all be so grateful for right now," she says.

Alfalfa’s doesn’t have self-checkout, so we keep a 6-foot distance from other shoppers in front of us as we wait to put our stuff on the conveyor belt. "If we weren’t wearing gloves, it would be a good idea to wipe down the credit card machine and any other area that you or your bag will touch with an antibacterial wipe," says Dr. Taylor-Pilarski. "Also, toss that paper grocery list in the garbage before you leave, and say no when asked if you want a receipt."

We leave the store, walk to our cars, and remove our masks, remembering to touch only the outside of the mask. I put mine in my brown bag, which I’ve left in the trunk of my car. As I go to open my back door to load my groceries on the seat like I usually do, Dr. Taylor-Pilarski stops me. "It’s a good idea to treat one spot in your car as contaminated, and the trunk is great for that."

I wipe down the lever that opens my trunk with an antibacterial wipe after I’ve closed it. Dr. Taylor-Pilarski says it’s wise to do that to any surface in your car that you might’ve touched after handling the grocery bags without gloves on, like the car door handle or steering wheel.

"I’d give you a hug but, well, I won’t," she says as we walk back from the garbage can, where we’ve just tossed our disposable gloves. We get in our cars to drive home.

Dr. Taylor-Pilarski has also given me simple instructions to follow when I get home.

With my two bags of groceries, I first take off my shoes and leave them outside to minimize the chances of bringing germs into the house. Next, I change into the spare clothes I left on a chair near our entrance.

As I’m doing this, it feels extreme—and in fact, there’s not a lot of research out there showing it’s necessary, as I mentioned. But then I think about what a small ask it is. Annoying? Sure. But it takes all of two minutes. And if it cuts my risk of traipsing with this virus in my house by even a fraction of a percentage, count me in.

Photo credit: Jewelyn Butron
Photo credit: Jewelyn Butron

I also unload everything on the tile floor in our foyer, add my canvas bags to my pile of possibly contaminated clothes, and bring them to the laundry room and start a load immediately, using hot water. Next, I bring my Alfalfa’s haul to the kitchen and put all of the produce in the sink to wash before storing in the fridge. I also wipe down cans and boxes with an antibacterial wipe.

Finally, I hit the front doorknobs (outside and in), as well as the kitchen counter, fridge handle, and sink handle with an antibacterial wipe as well, and wash my hands like I’ve seen surgeons do on TV: working up a good lather, washing halfway up my forearms, and even getting under my fingernails. I’m at the sink for a solid 20 seconds.

I remember Dr. Taylor-Pilarski saying that washing my hands like this is also important to do before preparing or eating food, even a few days from now. "And remember to do all of this before you give your husband or kids a hug when you get home," she says.

While all of the steps may seem like overkill, the truth is, shopping like Dr. Taylor-Pilarski wasn’t *that* hard.

Hey, that detailed adventure may inspire you to stay up until 2 a.m. to snag a grocery delivery time via Amazon or your local store. But if you leave the house and run errands safely and with proper planning, you can leave more availability open for delivery and curbside pickup services to high-risk groups like the elderly and immunocompromised to take advantage of. (If you do use those services, take the same precautions when it comes to wearing gloves while handling cardboard and wiping down food cans and boxes and washing produce before putting it away. You'll also want to tip using a store app, if that's available, instead of with cash.)

Taking all of these steps keeps me and my household virus-free during a time when experts around the world are asking all of us to be more aware than ever before of contaminating ourselves and each other. And that feels like a small effort with a potentially huge payoff.

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