Everything you need to know about social distancing at stores and cafes

Before you make any essential trips to the shops, it’s important to understand why social distancing is important during the coronavirus pandemic – and how it’s protecting you.

“If you can do this, you can work your way through any shopping situation,” Hassan Vally, epidemiologist and associate professor at La Trobe University, says.

“Social distancing is about trying to stop access of the virus into your body, which could lead to infection.

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“The main ways this may occur involve you breathing in droplets from another person who has coughed and sneezed, which is why we practice social distancing.

“The other way of becoming infected is by touching a surface that has the virus and then touching your face, and specifically your eyes, nose and mouth. This is why we need to wash our hands regularly.” 

A woman wears a face mask as a preventative measure against coronavirus at a checkout in a Woolworths supermarket in Coburg, Melbourne. Source: AAP Image/James Ross

What are the rules when I go to the supermarket with social distancing?

“You need to assume that a supermarket poses a risk of exposing you to the virus and treat your visit appropriately,” Assoc Prof Vally says. Coles, Woolworths and Aldi have specific rules when it comes to being in their stores. These include:

  1. Using a trolley as a guide for social distancing.

  2. Loading groceries at the end of the checkout and waiting for the customer in front of you to finish their transaction before moving on.

  3. Packing your own bags to avoid cross-contamination.

  4. Using contactless payment and not cash whenever possible.

How else are the supermarkets protecting me?

Woolworths are rotating staff every two hours to limit face-to face interactions.

Along with Harris Farm and Aldi, they also have glass screens at manned checkouts, and there is also a store greeter to wipe down trolleys and baskets.

Security guards are present at many stores across the country to enforce customer flow.

Woolworths has installed screens to protect its staff during the pandemic. Source: Woolworths/ Dallas Kilponen

How can I stay safe with social distancing at the supermarket? 

  • Be as efficient as possible. “The more time you spend around people the greater your risk of contracting COVID-19,” Assoc Prof Vally says. 

  • Don’t take children with you. “They may be hard to monitor and may also distract you when your focus should be to get in and out of there as quickly as possible.”

  • Don’t touch your face. “Keeping the virus away from your face will help reduce the risk of contracting it. Wash your hands properly as soon as you get home.” 

  • Don’t panic. “In theory the virus can live on surfaces,” the epidemiologist says. This includes things such as shopping trolley handles, and tinned food. However, “you need to transfer sufficient amounts of viable virus particles to your hands and then onto your face to become infected”. While some experts recommend washing tins of food or packaging, Assoc Prof Vally says: “I am not washing tins.”

A senior citizen shops at a Woolworths supermarket in Canberra. He looks at the almost empty shelves. Source: Chu Chen/Xinhua via Getty)

What are the social distancing rules when I go to a café or a takeaway shop?

Although cafes and restaurants are not allowed to seat people in their premises, they are still allowed to provide takeaway and delivery services. You must practice social distancing whenever you enter. 

How can I stay safe when getting takeaway? 

  • Use paper, not reusable, cups. “To be extra cautious you could make sure you attach the lid yourself,” Assoc Prof Vally says. “To get infected from a coffee cup, you would need the virus to be present on the outside of the cup or on the lid, and then you would need to transfer this to your mouth or nose or eyes.” 

  • Don’t use cutlery that’s been touched by anyone. “If someone with COVID-19 touches disposable cutlery that you then put in your mouth, you are at risk of contracting it,” the epidemiologist says.

  • Empty food into a clean dish, dispose of the packaging and then wash your hands before you eat anything.

People are seen at a Sydney cafe ahead of a nationwide shutdown of cafes, restaurant and licensed venues on March 23, 2020. Source: AAP Image/James Gourley

What are the social distancing rules when I go to a petrol station?

Social distancing applies when queuing to pay, and as with all trips to public places, Assoc Prof Vally recommends being as quick and efficient as possible when it comes to getting in and out. Some service stations are providing hand sanitiser and disinfectant wipes. 

How can I stay safe when getting petrol?

What are the rules when I go to a shopping centre with social distancing?

Scott Morrison has deemed shopping centres “essential services”, which means they are still open for business.

“The shopping centre industry is taking necessary precautions and following relevant health advice to support their people and customers in response to COVID-19 whilst balancing business continuity for the local community and broader economy,” the Shopping Centre Council of Australia said in a statement.

Social distancing is expected at all times. 

How else are shopping centres protecting me during the coronavirus crisis?

  • Westfield has announced they will have signs at their retailers that display how many customers they can have in their space, as well as regular PA announcements to remind people about social distancing. All parking is free with boom gates removed, apart from Westfield Sydney.

  • All shopping centres have closed children’s play areas and food court seating areas.

  • Stockland has increased regular cleaning schedules, with particular focus on high touch point areas, including lift and travelator handrails, entry points and amenities. They have also installed extra soap and hand sanitiser units.

How can I stay safe at a shopping centre? 

  • Limit your time there. “The biggest issue about going to the shops is other people, so you should limit your time and your contact with other people when you’re there,” Assoc Prof Vally says. 

  • Touch as little as possible. “As well as practicing social distancing, touching as few things as possible reduces your risk of catching COVID-19. And always wash your hands when you leave.” 

  • Be sensible. Vally believes there’s no need to wash your clothes when you get home from a shopping trip. “Although coronavirus may theoretically be able to survive on clothes, the risks of being infected through contact with fabric are low, if you otherwise practice good hygiene.”

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