Coronavirus: Do reusable grocery bags spread the virus? Are they banned?

Few scientific studies, but grocery workers want protections

The Mercury News, by Paul Rogers, April 3, 2020

OAKLAND, CA – MARCH 16: There were lines, but not too long, at Gazzali’s Supermarket at Eastmont Town Center in Oakland, Calif., on Monday, March 16, 2020, the day before shelter-in-place orders went into effect across the Bay Area. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Reusable grocery bags have been a staple of life for more than a decade, with environmental groups, cities and voters across California and other states supporting bans on single-use plastic bags to reduce huge amounts of plastic pollution increasingly turning up in rivers, streams and oceans.

But in recent days, as part of expanded efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus, health officials in Bay Area counties, along with Santa Cruz and San Benito counties, have prohibited grocery stores from allowing customers to bring their own bags when they go shopping.

“The thinking with the reusable bags is that when they are handled by different people and moved among different environments, it’s possible they could be a carrier of the virus,” said Preston Merchant, a spokesman for the San Mateo County health department. “It does attach to surfaces. Moving towards non-reusable bags means fewer people will have touched them.”

It’s a position supported by many grocery workers.

But the science is still unclear, however. No studies have been published showing coronavirus is spread through reusable shopping bags.

“To be honest, there is no scientific evidence,” said Dr. Rodrigo Hasbun, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Texas. “It is fear-based. And because we’re not sure, everyone is taking precautions.”

The virus can spread on many types of surfaces, including plastic, he noted, if an infected person touches something, or coughs or sneezes on it — whether it’s a shopping cart handle, a paper or plastic bag, a product on the shelf or a reusable bag.

A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus can survive up to 72 hours on stainless steel and plastic surfaces and on cardboard up to 24 hours. Reusable grocery bags are made of different materials, including woven polypropylene plastic, cotton and other cloth.

“So far, evidence suggests that the virus does not survive as well on a soft surface (such as fabric) as it does on frequently touched hard surfaces like elevator buttons and door handles,” wrote Dr. Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, in a recent article.

She noted that the 72hour life of the virus on plastic has received a lot of
attention, but the scientists who made that discovery found that by 72 hours less than 0.1% of the starting virus material remains, meaning infection is unlikely.

Even though that study didn’t expressly answer the question about reusable bags, it can inform decisions about them, some experts say. “When I think about what the things are that we can do to reduce pandemic risk, do I think this is the most important thing? No,” said Dr. Stephen Luby, an epidemiologist and professor of medicine at Stanford University. “Is there some evidence to support it? Yes. I guess I would say I don’t find it unreasonable.”

Luby noted that the grocery store workers are most affected.

“We’re all depending on those checkers,” he said. “They play a crucial role for us and we want them protected, just like we want our health care workers protected.”

And there’s clear evidence those workers are alarmed.

“A lot of our members feel very anxious because they are put on the front lines.” said Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, a grocery workers union that has 30,000 members in Northern California.

“In a typical shift at a grocery store you are looking at seeing 500 people a day,” he said. “A ll the unknowns lead our members to be very cautious about touching bags that are in peoples homes and may not have been properly sanitized.”

As a result of those concerns, the state is considering a similar ban to the Bay Area’s, which could mean the return of single-use plastic bags, at least temporarily.

On March 25, the California Grocers Association and the California Retailers Association sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, asking him to temporarily suspend the state’s prohibition on single-use plastic bags at supermarkets and pharmacies.

The industry groups also asked Newsom to waive the requirement that stores charge customers 10 cents for paper bags and reusable plastic bags. The law banning most plastic bags and setting that fee was signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. It was supported by the grocery workers union and major stores such as Safeway, and upheld by voters in 2016 when they approved Proposition 67, defeating an attempt by the plastic bag industry to over turn it.

“Our employees are expressing a great deal of discomfort and fear of exposure,” wrote Ron Fong, president of the grocery association and Rachel Michelin, president of the retailers association, in the letter to Newsom.

“This is a laudatory environmental policy, but it is simply not appropriate to expect our employees to handle and load customer’s used grocery bags at this time.”
Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the the California Environmental Protection Agency, is in discussions with state environmental regulators and officials at the governor’s office.

“These are important questions and we are looking into them,” he said in a statement. “Protecting the safety of both consumers and grocery workers is essential as we work to limit the spread of COVID-19.”

Around the Bay Area, the new ban is being handled differently by different stores. Some Safeway stores have posted signs that say reusable bags are not allowed. Some Whole Foods stores have a worker at the door telling people they can’t bring the bags in. Some stores are charging the 10-cent bag fee, or 25 cents in certain counties where local laws allow for a higher fee. Some aren’t.

The legal questions around bringing back plastic are thorny. There is no provision in the original law that Brown signed, or in Proposition 67, to waive the law in an emergency. Whether stores should continue to collect the 10-cent fee, which they retain to cover the costs of the paper bags they given to customers, wasn’t addressed by the Bay Area health officers.

And meanwhile, the plastic bag industry, which has lost campaigns around the country following California’s law, is highlighting the crisis to push some states to bring back plastic bags. In the past few weeks, Maine delayed a plastic bag ban, and New Hampshire and Massachusetts banned reusable bags over coronavirus concerns.

One 2010 study, in particular, is often cited in the debates by scientists at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in San Bernardino County. Analyzing 84 reusable bags that shoppers brought to supermarkets, researchers found bacteria in all of them, and e.Coli in 8%. The study, however, was funded by an industry group, the American Chemistry Council, and didn’t call for a ban on the bags. Instead, it recommended people wash them, which removed 99.9% of the bacteria.

…Plastic pollution is a growing problem. Only 9% of the plastic sold every year in the United States is recycled. Up to 13 million metric tons of it ends up in the world’s ocean each year — the equivalent of a garbage truck-ful being dumped into the sea every minute — where it kills fish, birds, sea turtles, whales and dolphins.

Plastic lasts for hundreds of years. At the current rate, one recent study found there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean in 2050 than fish, most of it broken into trillions of tiny pieces of toxic confetti.

Environmentalists say they support the grocery workers. They are looking for middle ground, however, like rules that would still allow people to bring reusable bags during the pandemic, but only if they load their own groceries and leave the bags in a cart.

“If the workers don’t want to handle my reusable bag, they shouldn’t have to,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, an environmental group in Sacramento. “We should be minimizing the touching between customers and employees. But that isn’t just for reusable bags.”