Supermarkets across the U.S. are launching seniors-only shopping hours for older people looking to avoid larger crowds during the coronavirus pandemic. But some public health experts are split on whether the benefits outweigh the risks.
A few big chains, including Whole Foods and Stop & Shop, as well as some mom-and-pop stores, announced this week that they are blocking off the first hour or two of the business day for only people 60 or older to shop.
The special hours afford seniors, one of the populations most vulnerable to the coronavirus, a chance to navigate a store that’s hopefully been freshly sanitized and restocked, and is less crowded than other times of the day. Some stores’ special hours also apply to immunocompromised people who are especially vulnerable to the virus, too.
Though well-intentioned, the concept isn’t necessarily the safest, according to Thomas Russo, a doctor and the chief of infectious diseases at the State University of New York at Buffalo medical school.
“Albeit a grocery store is fairly expansive in terms of airspace, it’s still an enclosed system,” Russo said. “It’s not quite as close quarters as a cruise ship, but it’s a variation of the model in my mind.”
The highly contagious coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Those droplets can remain in the air for hours, linger on cardboard for up to 24 hours and stick to other surfaces ― like plastic or stainless steel ― for days, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Tuesday.
Nursing homes have been especially vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus. In Washington state, at least 27 people who have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, have been linked to a single nursing home.
A potential problem with the seniors-only hours is that you can’t guarantee all of the shoppers and store employees are virus-free, Russo said. Those infected, including older people, may be asymptotic or show mild symptoms and still be able to spread the virus.
“You’re congregating a bunch of people who are at highest risk together,” Russo said. “If you’re our most vulnerable population, you want to practice maximum social distancing.”
Russo and other health experts acknowledge, however, that total isolation for older people can have negative mental health effects. What’s more, doing their own grocery shopping may be the only option for obtaining essentials for some seniors.
“I think there are positives and negatives,” said Nadia Abuelezam, an epidemiologist and an assistant professor at Boston College’s Connell School of Nursing. “It might not be the most ideal situation ... but as long as people are taking the proper precautions, it’s a decent option.”
“Getting out of the house is important for older people and their mental health,” she said, adding that people can also take walks outside and around the neighborhood for that type of stimulation at a lower risk.
If an older person decides to venture to the grocery store, they should be take the proper precautions: Keep at least 6 feet of distance between oneself and another person, disinfect the cart with a sanitizing wipe, use the self-checkout register and avoid touching your face as always.
An exposure to the virus during these special hours could lead to a very serious epidemic within that group of vulnerable shoppers, warned Abuelezam.
The safest options, if possible, would be to order groceries online and have them delivered or pick them up at a drive-thru location, or to ask a loved one or neighbor to buy the items and leave them outside your front door.
Whether you buy the groceries at the store yourself or someone else delivers them, each item as well any bags carrying them should be disinfected with a sanitizing wipe before being brought into the house. Produce should be thoroughly washed. And you should, of course, wash your hands afterward.
“You probably should hang back for at least the next few weeks” if you’re an older person, said Paul Offit, a virology expert and a physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The seniors-only hours can be helpful if the store is truly cleaner and less-crowded, Offit said. “But I’m not necessarily sure that you’re less likely to be exposed to the virus.”