Temperature tests at the entrance, plastic shields at the checkouts: welcome to the new normal at supermarkets across Malta.

But as the numbers of coronavirus cases increase each day, just how safe is the weekly shop?

Earlier this month a branch of Lidl had to be closed and fumigated after two employees tested positive for the virus. And a Valyou Supermarket outlet was disinfected after a worker in the warehouse became ill with COVID-19.

Christopher Barbara, chair of the department of pathology at Mater Dei Hospital, gave Times of Malta some guidance on shopping during the pandemic. 

How long should I spend in a supermarket?

Barbara said that while it was necessary for people to leave their homes for groceries, wandering around the shops aimlessly could increase the chances of transmission.

“I think the first thing you should do is to prepare a list beforehand and go in knowing what you want,” Barbara said.

“Avoid touching things you aren’t going to buy and putting them back on the shelf. Go, get the things you need and when you’re ready, make your way to the cash register.”

Barbara praised supermarkets that have provided hand sanitisers and wipes for their customers, saying this altruistic gesture could help prevent the spread.

“If you get an asymptomatic spreader of the disease using hand rub in the supermarket, they won’t infect anything through touch, which is really good.”

Should I wear a mask for my shopping trip?

Shoppers will have noticed that some of their fellow food foragers wear masks on these trips to replenish the larder.

Lidl supermarket urging customers to keep their distance.Lidl supermarket urging customers to keep their distance.

On this, Barbara says there are two schools of thought.

“I think it’s a bit dangerous because of the risk of cross contamination,” he says.

“But others dispute this and some papers suggest that wearing a proper surgical mask could minimise the dispersal of droplets.

“But this also means that you would have to keep wearing the mask correctly, that is, covering your mouth and nose without removing it, and refraining from touching your face, because you will contaminate yourself.”

Barbara also notes that wearing gloves could create a false sense of security.

“It’s important to keep up hand hygiene even if you are wearing gloves, to avoid cross contamination. Once you’re finished with them, remove them carefully and wash your hands thoroughly, up to the wrist.”

Even when paying for items by card, Barbara says one should pay attention if the use of the keypad is required. If not wiped down before use, shoppers should sanitise their hands after use, as it is possible for the virus to linger on the surface from a previous user.

What about when I get home?

So once the shopping trip is completed, and the items safely at home, is it time to relax?

Not quite, Barbara says. COVID-19 lingers on surfaces, so setting aside non-perishable items in another room for three days would ensure that those products were safe to touch and use.

The most important thing is to avoid spending time idling in the supermarket

With fridge items that cannot wait, wiping them down with a cloth or with water should be adequate. Fruit and vegetables should always be washed and rinsed thoroughly before eating.

“The most important thing is to avoid spending time idling in the supermarket. This is a disease spread through sweat and body fluids,” Barbara says.

What precautions are super­markets taking?

Times of Malta observed a number of supermarkets around the island during one day last week to see what, if any, precautionary measures were being observed to prevent the spread of the virus.

The first place visited was the Lidl outlet in Safi, which closed for a time earlier this month for fumigation after two employees tested positive for coronavirus.

When Times of Malta visit­ed, there were barriers outside the door, despite only a handful of shoppers around in the mid-morning.

A security guard was posted at the entrance and insisted that every person apply hand rub before entering.

The supermarket didn’t seem to have a uniform policy on protective gear, as different employees were seen wearing masks, gloves or none at all.

Signs around the shop advised shoppers to remain two metres away from each other. This rule was more or less observed, except at the tills, where employees did little to admonish shoppers who insisted on crowding.

Last week, Valyou supermarket in Naxxar also had a scare when a member of staff at the warehouse tested positive for COVID-19 and the shop was subsequently fumigated.

During our visit, entry from the supermarket’s lifts were met with signs advising that there should not be more than three people inside at once.

At the doorway, an employee took people’s temperatures and asked shoppers to apply sanitiser which had been plac­ed at every entrance.

All employees at the store wore masks and gloves, and signs advised people not to touch items they don’t want, and to keep their distance from others.

At PAMA in Mosta, shoppers also had their temperature taken before entering, and sanitiser was placed at the entrance for everyone to use.

Social distancing appeared slightly problematic at the outlet during Times of Malta’s visit, with customers crowding the fresh food counters waiting to be served.

Some members of staff wore masks and gloves, while others were not.

At Scotts supermarket in Mosta, an employee kept track of people coming in and out. Shoppers could be observed waiting outside the supermarket’s entrance, at a distance from each other, before being given the go-ahead to enter.

Inside the supermarket, a hand sanitising station was set up and the single cashier wore a face shield, a mask and gloves.

At Park Towers supermarket in St Julian’s, temperatures were also being taken at the entrance, with hand rub placed in strategic locations throughout the supermarket.

Employees all wore masks and gloves and signs urging shoppers to keep a minimum distance from each other were posted around the store or placed as stickers on the floor.

At Greens supermarket in Swieqi, similar measures were in place, with temperatures taken at the entrance, and hand rub being placed around the entrance.

Staff wore gloves and masks and also enforced minimum distance between shoppers, even stopping more than two people from entering the lift.

All the supermarkets visited had installed a barrier bet­ween shoppers and cashiers at the checkouts.

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