10 Signs a Store Isn’t Protecting Against Coronavirus

Some states may say that it's safe to shop again, but if you see any of these red flags, walk right out the door.

Across the country, stores of all kinds are beginning to reopen under a patchwork of rules and conditions. Understandably, consumers have a lot of questions about how safe it is to browse the aisles at their favorite shops.

Most retailers want to do all they can to keep their customers healthy—and keep them coming back. “Loyalty is going to be driven by how clean and careful a store is,” says Stephanie Martz, senior vice president and general counsel at the National Retail Federation (NRF). If you see any of the following practices, however, it may be a red flag that a store is not taking coronavirus precautions seriously.

Too many people in one place

“If I’m a customer, I want to look for stores where the number of people going in seems manageable, without literally bumping into someone else,” Martz says. That’s why many stores are limiting how many customers may be inside at one time, widening high-traffic areas and creating one-way aisles. Many are also placing tape or other markings on the ground to indicate where customers should stand while waiting to enter the store, as well as at checkouts, bakery and meat counters, restrooms, and anywhere else customers are likely to congregate in large numbers. In other words, they’re doing whatever they can to help shoppers stay at least six feet apart. It’s an easy rule to forget and is one of 14 coronavirus mistakes you’ll probably make this summer.

Mask wearing not enforced

Most states require or recommend that employees and customers wear face coverings when inside a store to reduce community spread of the virus. Indeed, a recent British study concluded that universal, consistent mask-wearing could reduce the transmission rate of coronavirus significantly. However, only about 50 percent of Americans always wear a mask in public, according to a recent poll.

Many stores are now posting signs at their entrances notifying customers of mask requirements, and some are even providing disposable masks to customers who enter without them. “A lot of safety in a store comes down to customers,” Martz says. “There’s only so much they can do if customers are very resistant to putting on masks.”

Woman in grocery store with face maskurbazon/Getty Images

Poor ventilation

“Fresh air supplied to a store can quickly dilute the [coronavirus] particles and droplets,” says John Zhai, PhD, professor of building systems engineering at the University of Colorado. That’s why some states, like Massachusetts, recommend opening windows and doors in enclosed spaces whenever possible. Central air conditioning can also help, Zhai says, since it continually pulls fresh air through the system. He acknowledges that typically, most businesses with A/C use a combination of recirculated and fresh air to save on energy costs. Health concerns should now take priority, he says, and the current best practice suggests using 100 percent fresh air if possible. He adds that stores with robust ventilation systems can safely host more people inside at one time. At home, an air purifier may help kill coronavirus.

Dirty surfaces

Most stores are cleaning and sanitizing high-touch areas frequently. These include shopping carts and baskets, chairs and tables, elevator buttons, PIN pads and touch screens at checkout, and restrooms, according to the NRF. Restrooms are a particular “hot zone,” says Zhai. He notes that studies have found that lidless toilets release an aerosol “plume” after each flush. “Any virus that was in that stool is now on every surface you can culture, the air ducts, the ceilings, the floors and you,” Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic told The Wall Street Journal. In addition, faucets, sinks, soap dispensers, countertops, diaper-changing stations, and door handles see a lot of use and should be cleaned frequently. If this isn’t happening, consider shopping elsewhere. Even at home, these are the 10 things you should be cleaning every day from now on.

Checkout fails

If a store’s layout makes it impossible to keep six feet between customers and cashiers, a clear physical barrier should be installed at the checkout stand, according to the state of Massachusetts. Touchless payment systems—those that let customers tap or wave their credit card, or use an app on their phone to pay—are also recommended. Whole Foods just ranked No. 1 for COVID-19 safety measures partly because it implements these checkout procedures. Stores that require customers to interact directly with cashiers without these precautions in place may be risking both customer and employee health.

Mishandling merchandise

The NRF encourages its members to consider modifying or suspending their return and exchange policies. For example, returned items might be disinfected by employees wearing gloves and masks, and then stored separately before going back out on the sales floor. Similarly, if stores are keeping fitting rooms open, they should have policies for sanitizing the rooms between customers, as well as any clothes, jewelry, or eyeglasses that have been tried on. Food samples should be discontinued, and stores that sell makeup, perfume, and other beauty products should not make testers available, according to Massachusetts’ guidelines.

Woman picking out savoy cabbage at the supermarket, wearing protective glovesKathrin Ziegler/Getty Images

Allowing reusable bags

Before the pandemic began, single-use shopping bags were banned in many cities and states, and reusable fabric or plastic bags were encouraged for environmental reasons. But when a New England Journal of Medicine study found that coronavirus could survive on plastic bags for up to three days, concerns grew about consumers transferring the virus from their homes to the stores. In addition, a 2010 study at the University of Arizona found bacteria in 99 percent of reusable bags and found that 97 percent of people did not ever wash their tote bags. Massachusetts is now prohibiting reusable bags, and so are many stores elsewhere until the crisis is over.

Congested seating areas

If a store has a waiting area or cafe, any tables and chairs should be spaced at least six feet apart to ensure proper social distancing and to minimize cross-contamination. If that’s not possible, temporary dividers should be installed, according to the College of Agriculture at Louisiana State University. Ideally, only one chair should be placed at each table to discourage person-to-person contact. In addition, signs should be posted that remind customers to maintain social distance. If you see a more crowded seating area, it’s probably best not to linger.

Business hours as usual

The NRF recommends that store hours be modified as necessary to allow employees to work in staggered shifts (so they have less direct contact with each other) and to allow for fewer customers in the store at one time. The group also supports the practice of reserving certain hours, usually early in the day, for seniors and other high-risk individuals to shop before crowds arrive. The state of Massachusetts advises posting these hours prominently. Consumer Reports lists early-morning trips among its top ways to avoid germs when grocery shopping. If a store doesn’t offer this, it may be worth asking why.

No shopping alternatives

Retailers that are prioritizing customer health and safety are providing options besides in-store shopping. Many now offer online ordering with curbside pickup or home delivery. If you haven’t tried it yet, brush up on the 13 things you need to know before grocery shopping online. Some stores, especially those that require personalized attention, like bridal and jewelry shops, are encouraging customers to make appointments to come in.

“Shopping by appointment has become pretty popular,” Martz says. However, she adds, “As places reopen more and more, I suspect that it will become less necessary. We’ve discovered there actually are safe ways to shop no matter where you are. If this comes back in the fall in some really serious way, we are hopeful that this time we know how to keep people safe when they come into stores.” Read on for everyday habits that could (and should) change after coronavirus.

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Laurie Budgar
Laurie is a lifestyle writer for RD.com covering current events, finance, technology, and pets. She has spent decades traveling (often solo) around the world, using the latest personal technology, and loving on her pets – and writes about these topics often.