ASHEVILLE – As of March 24, there’s evidence of community spread of coronavirus in Buncombe County, which means it’s not known how some are getting sick.
With so many unknowns comes fear. One thing that’s top of mind for many people: how to safely get food.
Here, with help from the NC State food safety extension, we answer some of your questions about grocery stores and takeout food.
These resources are based on guidance and best practices as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization.
The Citizen Times is providing this story for free to readers because of the need for information about the coronavirus. We encourage you to further support local journalism by subscribing.
What are the risks of takeout food?
There is no indication that takeout or drive-thru meals will cause illness, according to NC State. In fact, it’s a good risk management choice, because ordering takeout helps maintain social distance.
The same goes for delivery, according to the guidance. Ordering food, as long as it’s left on your doorstep, adheres to social distancing guidelines.
Can I get coronavirus by touching packaging exposed to illness?
The risk is very low, according to the most recent information available from NC State.
There is no indication that food packaging has been connected to virus transmission.
More: 5 ways you can help keep Asheville restaurants, staff, going amid coronavirus controls
But if you’re concerned, wash your hands well and sanitize them after handling food containers.
The virus is mainly believed to be spread through person to person contact.
If a restaurant employee becomes ill, will the food served there be safe to eat?
Food establishment personnel infected with COVID-19 or any other illness should be excluded from work activities that could create unsanitary conditions.
However, COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person to person contact through respiratory droplets — in other words, coughing and sneezing.
More: How you can still get food in Asheville: What’s open, offering takeout and delivering
In commercial food production, federal, state and local regulations help ensure general food safety.
Those regulations, here enforced by the Buncombe County Health Department’s Environmental Health division, are designed to keep food from being contaminated with microbes from the environment, including viruses.
If you’re curious about the cleanliness of a local restaurant, you may look up their Health Department score through a county-provided portal at buncombe-nc.healthinspections.us.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, unlike foodborne gastrointestinal viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that can spread through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness.
“Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission,” the FDA says in its guidance.
How about the grocery store?
Grocery delivery is one way to maintain social distancing while getting needed supplies. Shipt and Amazon Prime Now (Whole Foods delivery) are good resources.
Locally, Mother Earth Food is also a good resource, though the service now has a waiting list for new customers.
Some grocery stores, including Harris Teeter, allow online ordering and express pickup.
However, should you need to go to the store, here are some guidelines.
Is imported food safe?
Currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods, and there are no reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States associated with imported goods, according to NC State.
How should people handle produce?
Consider using hand sanitizer before and after selecting your produce, and always avoid touching multiple items when making your selections. Basically, a good rule of thumb is if you touch it, you buy it. Look with your eyes.
“As per good food handling practices in general, wash hands before food preparation or eating, avoid touching the face and consider supplementing handwashing with the use of hand sanitizer,” the guidance from NC State says.
How can I minimize risk at the grocery store?
Use hand sanitizer as you enter the store, while shopping, and wash hands and/or use sanitizer as soon as possible after leaving, the NC State guidance says. If available, use a sanitizing wipe to clean cart handles.
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Try to maintain social distancing as much as possible while shopping, and avoid touching surfaces or items unnecessarily. Also, as is always the case now, avoid touching your mouth, nose or face.
Obviously, do not go shopping when you’re symptomatic or think you’ve been exposed to the virus.
How can I know my grocery store is minimizing the risk?
Many stores are following CDC guidelines on disinfection and limiting hours to allow for additional cleaning.
Beginning March 23, Ingles Markets adjusted store hours from 7 a.m.-9 p.m., with the first shopping hour from 7-8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to older shoppers and those with compromised immune systems.
Whole Foods markets now open locally at 7 a.m. only to shoppers over 60. Regular business hours resume at 8 a.m.
All Publix locations are open 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Effective March 24, Publix will designate Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, 7-8 a.m., as hours for customers aged 65 and older. The pharmacy will also be open to seniors at that time.
French Broad Food Co-op: Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. until further notice, giving employees time to clean and stock. Shoppers are given sanitary gloves at the door, among other disease-fighting measures.
Harris Teeter: Stores close at 9 p.m. nightly for cleaning and restocking.
Hopey & Company: Hours are Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.- 8 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Check ahead with your favorite grocery store for adjusted hours before heading out, as hours are subject to change.
Mackensy Lunsford is an award-winning staff writer for the Asheville Citizen Times, former professional line cook and one-time restaurant owner.
Reach me: [email protected]
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