A man wearing a face mask gestures as he walks by a store on Sainte-Catherine street in Montreal, Monday, May 18, 2020. Shopping for clothes used to be a relatively simple process three months ago: walk into a store, try on a number of items, buy what you want, leave the rest. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

A perfect fit? Customers need to navigate new norms in clothing stores

Experts say the risk of picking up the novel coronavirus while shopping remains

Shopping for clothes used to be a relatively simple process three months ago: walk into a store, try on a number of items, buy what you want, leave the rest.

As retailers begin to re-open nationwide after months of shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, a few more steps are being added to the customer’s shopping experience.

Waiting in line to reduce in-store traffic, putting on hand sanitizer once you get in, and following physical distancing guide markers will be commonplace as Canadian shops and boutiques try to keep customers and employees safe.

But experts say the risk of picking up the novel coronavirus while shopping remains.

“If many people are touching the items — and that will be the case — then yes, it could be a concern,” said Satinder Kaur Brar, an expert in environmental biotechnology and decontamination at York University.

Diane Brisebois, the CEO of the Retail Council of Canada, says stores are putting more emphasis on training their staff to sanitize high-touch areas like cash terminals after each client passes through, as well as ”strict, regular sanitation” of surfaces throughout the store.

But what about the clothing itself?

Contact with clothes can be separated into “two types of touching,” University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness says: casual browsing when looking for a size, and the more intensive contact that comes with trying pieces on.

READ MORE: B.C. records 21 new COVID-19 cases after three days of single-digit increases

Because viruses don’t live as long on soft materials as they do on hard surfaces, Furness says clothes are typically safer to navigate. But touching each hanger as you’re shuffling through racks, and handling zippers or buttons when trying garments on can be a different story.

“There’s a potential (for transmission) there, no question,” Furness said. “On zipper handles and buttons, you can expect the virus to last longer than a day.”

Most retailers are still allowing people to try on their apparel — Roots is one that’s not — and Brisebois said fitting room capacity will be cut down to half to ensure physical distancing in those areas.

The cleaning of fitting rooms is also of high importance.

“Employees will sanitize the change room after each customer,” Brisebois said. ”So they clean the sitting area, the hooks where you hang your clothes, the door handle, and so on.”

READ MORE: ‘Germ-killing robots’ to fight COVID-19 at this B.C. hospital

Quarantining unpurchased clothing that’s been tried on, or steaming them before they’re put back out on racks is another measure being enacted by stores.

Here’s what the experts say about some of those safety precautions:

QUARANTINING CLOTHING

Furness said introducing a “one-day delay” between when an article of clothing is tried on and when it’s put back onto a rack or shelf is “a reasonable precaution to take.”

That timeline seems to line up with the policies of most Canadian stores, which say they will quarantine clothing for 24-72 hours.

Brar believes more caution is needed, however, since we don’t know how long the virus can last on various types of fabric. One day may work for cotton, but synthetics might need more time.

“I presume one working week would be enough — five days,” she said.

STEAMING CLOTHING

Brar said steaming unpurchased clothing that’s been handled by customers would be an “effective” process because viruses dislike humidity.

Furness agreed, but added that we don’t know what temperature the steam needs to be, and how long we need to expose the clothing to heat and moisture before the virus becomes deactivated.

Still, Furness called steaming “actually quite an impressive solution.”

“I wish there was a little bit more research to back it up. … but in theory, I would say that should be deadly effective,” he said.

WEARING GLOVES

The experts agree that asking employees or customers to wear gloves while navigating through a store isn’t very effective in helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Brar said gloves can be more likely to carry the virus to other surfaces, especially when they’re being used for long periods of time.

Furness said gloves are also problematic because they can’t be sanitized.

“So you’re wearing something that you can’t clean, that you’re going to continue to touch and collect stuff on, and that you’re going to possibly continue to touch your face with,” he said “I would much rather see people with hand sanitizer sanitize their hands periodically.”

REMOVING HIGH-TOUCH INSTALLATIONS

Brisebois said most retailers are shifting racks with glasses and jewelry to behind a counter or Plexiglas case, where employees would hand customers the items they request, and sanitize them afterwards if they’re not purchased.

Make-up counters are also evolving, Brisebois said, where stores are introducing video technology to replace tester samples that would normally be used by customers to try on products.

Furness said removing high-touch displays is a good idea, as long as staff has disinfectant wipes to sanitize the merchandise that customers ask to try on.

“Right now a rack of glasses, for example, would be really hard to clean routinely and rapidly. But to do it as things are taken off by handing them to people and back, yeah I think that sounds like an excellent idea.”

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press


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