White House Officials Say to Avoid Grocery Stores For the Next Two Weeks If You Can

Zee Krstic

From Good Housekeeping

  • The CDC updated its advice for Americans on Friday, and is now recommending people wear face coverings while in public.
  • On Saturday, the White House coronavirus task force asked Americans to avoid grocery stores as much as possible for the next two weeks.
  • Experts say face coverings and cloth masks could prevent people who are unknowingly contagious from spreading their germs and the virus that causes COVID-19 in public places like grocery stores.
  • You do not need to wear a surgical mask to be safe, however. Face coverings can be made using common closet staples.

As more information about the coronavirus pandemic develops, some of the information in this story may have changed since it was last updated. For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit the online resources provided by the CDC, and the World Health Organization. You can work to better protect yourself from COVID-19 by washing your hands, avoiding contact with sick individuals, and sanitizing your home, among other actions.

It's been one of the most frequently asked questions since the coronavirus pandemic first impacted the United States — should I be wearing a face mask? The question is now more urgent than ever, after White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, M.D., began advising the American public to avoid grocery stores and pharmacies for the next two weeks, starting on Saturday, April 4. "This is the moment to not be going to the grocery store, not going to the pharmacy, but doing everything you can to keep your family and your friends safe," Birx said, according to USA Today. Dr. Birx's recommendations come as confirmed COVID-19 cases topped 337,000 in the United States this week, and right after a new set of recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were announced on April 3, asking Americans to wear protective fabric coverings around their nose and mouth.

From the beginning of the pandemic, nearly every healthcare expert said they wouldn't recommend that Americans wear face masks outside of a hospital or a treatment facility, unless they were already feeling sick or had symptoms indicative of COVID-19. Additionally, there has been a massive shortage of personal protective equipment, which is necessary for healthcare providers in hospitals across the country. Why, then, did the CDC make new recommendations for cloth coverings?

As most Americans have heard by now, many people who contract SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that leads to COVID-19) often don't show any symptoms for days to weeks, and CDC officials say that new evidence suggests that people are unknowingly contagious when they leave their home to run essential errands. But CDC officials made their new recommendation clear: Surgical masks of any kind, including N-95 respirators, are not required for those who need to step outside.

With his previous experience as a former CDC chief medical officer, Robert W. Amler, M.D., M.B.A., the vice president for government affairs at New York Medical College, explains why local leaders in cities like New York began telling residents to cover their face with cloth coverings even before the CDC changed their recommendations. "We suspect that people can be contagious a couple of days before they show symptoms. And that means that the person passing you or walking near you might already be infected, and might already be capable of getting you sick," Dr. Amler tells Good Housekeeping. "If you're feeling okay, and you're walking around, you might be safe, but you also might be at the beginning of the infection, and capable of passing the virus to others."

Dr. Binx's recommendations aren't being enforced by local officials as law, and she was merely discouraging non-essential trips to the grocery store or other essential businesses. If you need to visit the grocery in the next two weeks, Dr. Amler breaks down how the CDC's recommendations can further help you reduce your risk of contracting or unknowingly spreading COVID-19 while you're out and about.

Should I wear a mask at the grocery store?

While it is not required, the CDC's new advisory asks you to cover your nose and mouth before you head into stores — but this doesn't mean you need to be wearing a surgical mask. Dr. Amler explains that any cloth — whether it's a bandana, a balaclava, or a scarf — can work to keep public spaces safe for others by trapping airborne virus particles. "It's a good idea to wear [a face covering] now in public places if you can, because it's going to keep droplets from your nose and mouth from getting out into the public airspace," he says. "It's not perfect, but it does help." If you do have access to a surgical mask, Dr. Amler says you should feel free to use it, but don't stress out if you do not — wearing a protective cloth face covering provides the same amount of protection as a routine surgical mask would, as they both trap germs when someone talks, coughs, or sneezes.

While wearing a face covering or DIY cloth mask might help keep public spaces even better protected than they were before, Dr. Amler says it's still important to remember that a face covering is more effective when you limit how much time you're spending outside in the first place. Spending multiple hours outside with the same face covering won't be as effective as if you were wearing it for minutes. "Try to, when possible, reduce the total amount of time spent at the grocery store," he explains. "When you're going shopping, go with a list in hand, so you know exactly what you need and you don't linger longer than necessary."

What kind of face covering should I wear?

"The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators," CDC officials wrote in their new announcement, but the agency didn't list the kinds of coverings that you should put on before heading out. In fact, Dr. Amler believes that scientists at the national and local level aren't sure of which kinds of materials are most effective at the moment. He suggests that you should try to tie something around your nose and mouth that is breathable, but also tightly knit. "You know that a thick or heavier garment over your face is going to block better than something that's very light and loose," he explains. "You know that if you wear something with a good seal around your nose and mouth that you're going to have better protection, than if you have just some sort of thing that's flopping over your face, and not very tight against your skin."

Things like scarves, balaclavas that don't expose the mouth or nose, or even towels could work in a pinch. "Generally, the tighter the textile that you're using … the better it's going to work," Dr. Amler suggests.

Whichever covering you decide to wear, Dr. Amler says there's a rule you need to follow that the CDC hasn't made clear just yet. "The outside of your scarf or your mask is dirty, and you know it needs to be cleaned as soon as you are back inside," he explains, adding that the inside of any cloth-based covering can accumulate germs over multiple uses. "And when you're handling it, you need to realize that it could be contaminated itself." Try to wear new coverings when possible and thoroughly wash and sanitize old ones. And wash your hands immediately after handling your face covering when you return home.

What can I do if I don't have a mask or face covering?

The CDC's recommendations are just that — a recommendation, not a law. If you find yourself absolutely needing to go to the grocery store and don't have any kind of face covering, don't stress. Dr. Amler says you can still lower your risks by remembering to follow the best practices that have already been well established for the last month. "Try to avoid places like grocery stories when they're crowded," he suggests. And in any grocery store, supermarket, pharmacy, or essential business, the CDC says it's important to maintain a berth of six feet between shoppers if possible.

You also want to be sure to disinfect anything that may become contaminated with germs after visiting a store, too. But most importantly, Dr. Amler says, is to continue to vigilantly wash your hands when you return home from being outside. "The one recommendation that has not changed with all of this is the very great importance of washing hands," he says. "Wash them frequently and for at least 20 seconds each time to really get rid of whatever you might have picked up."

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