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What Are 'Essential' Errands? How Do You Do Them Safely?

woman putting a bag of groceries in her car trunk
Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH - Blogs
By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPHBoard-certified internistMarch 30, 2020

Millions of people across the United States are under official orders to stay home or shelter in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even if lockdown orders aren’t in effect where you live, it’s important that we all physically distance ourselves from others to prevent more sickness and death.This means leaving home only for essential errands.

What are essential errands?

This question has evolved rapidly over the past few days. The key reasons to enter public spaces are to get groceries, medicine, takeout food, or gas for your car. Much of this may be doable by delivery or mail order to your home depending on your location and the cost.

Even your doctor’s appointments may not be essential to do in person. Call your doctor before going in. Many are moving to telehealth options and postponing elective procedures and surgeries to save resources. 

If you are at risk for serious complications from COVID-19 because of your age or your medical issues, take extra precautions. Ask a friend or family to help you with errands. Look for online options or delivery services. Volunteers may be nearby ready to help you stay home, safe and healthy.

What errands are not essential?

Basically, anything that is not necessary for maintaining your physical health and safety would be considered non-essential.

That means cutting out all of the “nice to have” services and activities. Sitting down in a restaurant or bar, exercising at a gym, getting your haircut are not safe options until this crisis is over.

Think about all the places you often go, where the person assisting you is physically close to multiple people all day long. Along with doctors and nurses, home health aides and teachers, those at risk include your hairdresser, waiter, cashier and retail worker.

These locations are where you could pick up the virus touching the back of a chair or the door handle, and then touching your face. Everyone in public places is at risk for not only getting COVID-19, but also passing it along if they are out when infectious. Remember, a person can be infectious for up to 2 weeks before they feel sick.

And though I know they may not really fall under the definition of “errands,” I do want to emphasize how important it is to discontinue social gatherings. I have read about events small and large – from funerals to spring break parties and Mardi Gras – sparking local COVID-19 outbreaks. To stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, gatherings over 10 people are not recommended.

It is ok to go outdoors.

Good news! Enjoy the sunshine and nature, play with your dog and get some exercise. Just stay out of crowded areas and maintain a 6-foot distance from others.

Tips for when you do run errands:

  • Plan and be organized. 

Have your list of supplies ready so you can get in and out quickly. Plan for items you’ll need over the next 1-2 weeks so you can limit your number of outings. This includes food, cleaning supplies, medications, and other items like contact lenses. Don’t forget the fun stuff like books, board games, and treats. See what you can order online to eliminate the errand.

  • Go out during quiet times.

Many grocery stores have early morning times dedicated to serving customers age 60 and older. That is also when the store is likely cleanest because many stores are closing early to deep clean at night.

  • Social distance.

While you are out stay 6 feet away from others. This can be tricky in the grocery aisle, but many stores are trying to accommodate as best they can.  

  • Keep your hands as clean as possible and don’t touch your face.
    • Use hand sanitizer as you enter and exit places.
    • Wipe down your shopping cart handle with a disinfectant wipe.
    • Use your own pen or stylus to sign receipts and touch keypads.
    • When you get home wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and clean your reusable bags.

Stay connected

Before our world turned upside down with COVID-19 many of us took for granted getting together with friends and family at our homes, in restaurants, or at festivals or concerts.  We didn’t think twice about the privilege of shopping. Exercising at the gym and dental cleanings were important priorities.

All that has changed for the time being. We do need to stay connected, more now than ever before, but it cannot be through physical interaction with people outside of our home. It will be through phone calls, video chat, social media, and a rapidly growing array of online services. We can do this, and save lives, by simply staying home.

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About the Author
Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and a WebMD Medical Editor. She is on the team that makes sure all WebMD content is medically correct, current and understandable. She sees patients at the Women’s Wellness Clinic at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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