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Questions arise over safety of reusable bags during COVID-19 pandemic

Richard Reeve
Updated: March 26, 2020 10:57 PM
Created: March 26, 2020 10:40 PM

Minneapolis's mandate to charge 5 cents for disposable bags was meant to help save the planet.

But now, with the threat of COVID-19, shoppers are asking hard questions. Among them, "Are reusable bags now a health risk in public places?"

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"I'm definitely concerned about the virus and getting it," said Alex Harrison, from Minneapolis. "You're also touching carts, food, everything else that's in there, that could potentially have the virus." 

Harrison says he's trying to take precautions. 

"The cloth ones can be machine washed," he said. "The ones that are more of a plastic material, just wipe them down at home."

At least two major metro area retailers are taking action. 

Target is temporarily halting the sale of reusable bags, although shoppers are allowed to bring in their own. 

But Hy-Vee, citing COVID-19 concerns, is going one step further: They're barring customers from bringing them into the store altogether. 

Anna Nitz of Eagan said she's a bit skeptical but added that safety should be a priority. 

"Everyone's overreacting now, so I guess better safe than sorry," she said. "That's fine if they think it will help. Maybe other stores will want to follow their lead." 

Gretchen Musicant, the head of the Minneapolis Health Department, said canvas bags pose a very low risk for transmission and that research shows there is no legitimate concern with shoppers using their own bags. 

Still, the city has now temporarily suspended the 5-cent surcharge for using plastic bags.

In a statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, Minneapolis City Spokesperson Casper Hill said:

"The five-cent surcharge is not being enforced, and there are no plans to do so until July, so stores that don't include the surcharge for bags during the public health emergency will not be in violation."

The Minnesota Department of Health says if you use reusable bags, make sure they are clean. It also suggests using a washing machine and disinfectant. 

State health officials say it's unclear how long the virus lasts on surfaces. 

But a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found "the virus that causes COVID-19 can live for several hours to days." 

The CDC listed several examples in the report:

  • 4 hours on copper
  • 24 hours on cardboard
  • 3 days on plastic and stainless steel. 

So, reusable bags or not? For shoppers like Nitz, it's yet another decision, a weighing of safety, during this difficult time.  

"I guess it's just your personal decision whether you're willing to risk using your reusable bags or not," she said.  

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