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Coronavirus tips: 13 ways to help stay safe when you leave the house

Start practicing these practical tips for grocery shopping, opening doors and signing your name when you're out in public.

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Social distancing is important in the grocery store, but so is how you shop.

Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Even though you spend most of your day indoors while quarantined at home, chances are you still leave the house to run errands and get fresh air, setting you on a collision course with other people outside your household -- and potentially their germs. The people around you in grocery stores and on strolls through the neighborhood are in the same position as you, appropriately cautious about the spread of the highly contagious new strain of coronavirus that can be passed along on by those who appear asymptomatic.

As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading US institute that sets guidelines for health and infectious disease, issued a new recommendation for people to voluntarily wear face coverings, including homemade face masks, when you venture out to places where social distancing is a challenge, or in areas that are hotspots for the disease's transmission, like cities with a high number of confirmed positive cases.

As the US surpasses 277,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and over 1 million reported cases worldwide, social distancing and thoroughly washing your hands are considered the most effective safeguards, an essential even if you do wear a cloth mask (save the surgical masks and N95 respirators for the front line health responders). 

Here are smart, sound tips to follow when you do need to leave the house to run essential errands. And here's the current understanding of coronavirus when it comes to food delivery and mail, such as Amazon packages.

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It's important to reduce your risk of exposure when you shop.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

What's this about face masks?

On Friday, the CDC reversed its position on who should and shouldn't wear face masks in public. Prior to this latest announcement, the CDC and other health experts maintained that there was no need for the general public to wear a face covering in public. 

However, the rapid spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has caused the US authority on infectious disease to change course. The institute now recommends that people who reside in areas with high transmission rates, and those who are going to places where they can't maintain social distancing (e.g., 6 feet of space between you another person who isn't a household member) drape their nose and mouth with cloth or another type of breathable fabric, including face masks you make at home

The CDC considers this a voluntary health measure, and a recommendation. While it isn't law, there is a strong grassroots movement that has circulated homemade face mask patterns and tips for weeks, for personal use and for donation to hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

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There's certainly nothing wrong with wearing a homemade face mask as long as you're also washing your hands and practicing social distancing, especially from high-risk groups like senior citizens and people with compromised immune systems. Just be aware that homemade face masks might be better at blocking large particles like sneezes and coughs, rather than the small particles that N95 respirator masks (reserved for healthcare workers) can block. 

Moral of the story:  If you feel well and don't have symptoms, wearing a homemade face mask in crowded public settings is recommended by the CDC. Most importantly, keep your distance and wash your hands.

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SummerDance/iStock / Touchups by CNET

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Enough with the fingertips: Use your knees, feet, elbows and knuckles instead

If you're still pressing buttons for walk signs with your fingertips, stop. Any time you have to open a door, push a button, pull a lever or digitally sign for something, use a different body part instead. You have plenty.

For example, I'll often tap out a PIN code or make a selection on a digital screen with my knuckle instead of the pad of my finger. I'll push open a door with my shoulder, hip or foot instead of my hands.

You can usually flip on a light switch or sink faucet with your elbow or wrist, and you can wrap the sleeve of your sweater or jacket around the handle of any doors you have to physically pull open. It's easy enough to toss your clothing into the wash later rather than expose your skin now, especially if the chances you'll use your hands to touch food items is high (e.g., you're opening the door to a restaurant to oder takeout).

Distance, distance, distance

Did we mention distance? Social distancing can mean anything from hunkering down at home and refraining from seeing outside friends and family in person to keeping a boundary between you and others when you do go out. 

The practice of keeping 6 feet away from those outside your home group extends to waiting in line at the grocery store, going on walks (you can momentarily walk in the bike lane if you're careful about looking out for street traffic) and picking up food to go.

Some states are enforcing social distancing in grocery stores and some businesses are doing that themselves. But if you need to keep more distance between you and someone else while on a walk or when reaching for an item at the store, take a step back and wait or politely ask the person to give you more clearance ("Oh, I'm trying to keep my distance from everyone.")

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Automated door openers like this can keep your hands from touching common surfaces.

Slobo/Getty Images

Look for the automatic option

Most modern buildings have accessibility buttons to open doors for people with mobility concerns. You can easily touch this with your forearm, hip or foot (some are pretty low down) and wait the few seconds for the doors to open. 

Consider buying an automatic soap dispenser for home so you don't have to worry about transferring germs to the pump.

Watch where you put your phone

While we've gotten the go ahead to use disinfecting wipes on phones, another smart idea is to avoid placing your device on iffy surfaces to begin with. Do you really need to put your phone down, or can you just stash it in a coat pocket or purse? The less you can expose your phone to shared surfaces, the less you need to worry about them in the first place.

If you do put your phone down on a shared surface, lay down a napkin and set your phone on that. It'll save you having to disinfect your device quite so often.

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If microfiber cloth doesn't put your mind at ease, you can use disinfecting wipes on iPhones now.

Derek Poore/CNET

Set aside your reusable tote bags

Increasingly, store policy excludes you from bringing outside tote bags and other bags into grocery stores -- or at least, using them in the bagging area. If you want to lessen your environmental impact, reuse the store's fresh bags at home.

The stores I shop at continue to make baskets and carts available, and only some offer sanitary wipes. Others have assigned gloved staff to wipe down carts and baskets for you with disinfectant, before you shop. 

Regardless, it's a good idea to thoroughly wash your hands before you leave home to protect others, bring your own sanitary wipes if you have them and the store doesn't offer that option and be sure to wash your hands when you get home. Really, we can't stress that enough.

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Don't sort through produce with your bare hands

At a time when face masks are increasingly common in stores and shoppers will give you the side eye for rummaging through lemons looking for the best one, here's a little advice: Don't poke the bear.

When sorting through food, use a glove or stick your hand inside a fresh, store-supplied bag and use the outside like a glove to pick up and inspect the garlic and bananas you want, so as not to touch every item with your bare hands. It'll make others feel more comfortable, and is just as likely to inspire them to follow suit.

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Maybe don't rummage through all the fruit and veggies without reinforcements.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Whatever you do, touching's off limits

Look, if they don't live in your household, don't touch. Most of us are observing this dictum by now, but on the off-chance you see a friend or family member, resist the urge to hug, tap elbows or get anywhere closer than 6 feet. Air huge if you have to. Blow a kiss (minus the actual exhalation). We have 13 clever and satisfying ways to safely greet someone that keeps you and loved ones safe.

Wash your hands every time you get 'home' -- seriously

Along with social distancing, washing your hands thoroughly is one of your best defenses against acquiring coronavirus. Give your hands a thorough scrub each time you get back. 20 seconds is the going recommendation, which may seem like ages, but if you wash slowly, it's easy to do. 

I count five long seconds (one-one-thousand) of soaping each hand, in between the fingers and up to the wrists, then count another five seconds for washing each hand thoroughly to get the soap (and any dead germs) off. I often wash the soap dispenser pump and faucet handles, too.

That helps me feel safe enough to adjust my contacts, blow my nose and pick that nagging something or other out of my teeth in the comfort of my own space.

Read more: The best thermometers for cold and flu  

Don't neglect your car and home

After getting back from running errands, it doesn't hurt to wipe down your car and surfaces in your home, especially if you share it with others. Person-to-person contact is the most common vector, but viruses and bacteria do spread through objects and other forms of indirect physical contact. Here's our guide for sanitizing your home and car.

Carry extra napkins, disinfecting wipes and facial tissue

Packing extra tissues, disinfecting wipes, wet wipes and other paper products in my purse is already part of my habit, but now I pay extra attention to how much paper I have on hand. 

Normally, I might use a spare napkin to wipe my hands after an impromptu snack (also in my bag). Today, these products could come in handy to clear away germs, or act as a barrier between you (or your phone) and a surface. For example, opening a door handle if you just saw someone cough into their hands before turning a knob.

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Stop handling cash

While it's believed that the highest risk of acquiring coronavirus comes from person-to-person transmission, we do know that shared surfaces can harbor the virus. Play it safe by setting the cash aside for now and relying more on contactless payments.

A large number of payment terminals accept Google Pay, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and credit cards with the contactless logo on them. And remember, if a digital signature is required, you can use your knuckle instead of your index finger. For a physical signature, start packing your own pen.

Banish questionable items to a long time out

Coronavirus can cling to surfaces, such as your jacket or a tabletop, for up to nine days at room temperature, studies have found. However, the CDC found that the coronavirus RNA remained in cabins about the Diamond Princess Cruise ship up to 17 days after passengers departed.

We know that a thorough cleaning with good ol' soap and water will kill the virus' structure, but if you're not sure how to disinfect an item, like a dry-clean-only jacket or pair of boots, setting it aside for three or four weeks is another option. 

Read on for global coronavirus updates, how to track the virus' spread across the globe, and how to sanitize your house.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.