Thrift shopping during a pandemic: is there a risk?

Sudabeh Sarker

COVID-19 shutdowns have forced society as a whole to rethink the way they interact with the world. Shared public spaces like libraries and cafes have closed off their indoor seating areas. People have been instructed to hold off on sharing personal belongings and even sidewalks.

These new guidelines have, of course, bled into the business of secondhand shopping where more customers now find themselves warier of handling things from unknown origins.

Resellers of secondhand clothing like Plato’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange have been keenly aware of this, and they have changed their store’s policies to protect customers.

Goodwill store in northern Beaverton, Oregon, at Cornell Road and Bethany Blvd.
Goodwill store in northern Beaverton, Oregon, at Cornell Road and Bethany Blvd. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

“We are now only accepting items in open containers. We do require buyers to launder their clothing, but we required that even before the pandemic,” said Kim Forsyth, manager of Plato’s Closet, a consignment store that buys and sells used clothing.

Buffalo Exchange has implemented an appointment-based system for those who are looking to sell their used clothes, and require them to not only launder their clothes but to leave them untouched for 24 hours. Payments, which were once distributed through cash or store credit, are now done via Paypal.

“I have seen a lot of gross things here,” said Goodwill employee Amy Pak. “We ask people to wash and clean their clothes before donating, but we can’t go to their homes and see if they actually did it.”

According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, how long the virus lasts on surfaces can vary from an hour to a month, depending on conditions.

Measures such as leaving items untouched for 24 hours are effective for absorbent fabric materials. However, customers should be aware that clothing is not just made out of fabric. It can be composed of buttons, plastic decorations, metal zippers and other non-fabric materials. Not to mention, thrift stores sell a wide variety of items made from a wide range of materials.

Although many health organizations such as Hackensack Meridian Health claim that viruses can last on fabric for up to 24 hours, that claim comes from a 2005 study on the SARS virus. As of now, studies have only been conducted on hard surfaces like plastic, metal, cardboard and copper.

How long does the coronavirus stay on surfaces? The U.S. Department of Health and Services claim plastic and stainless steel as leading offenders.
How long does the coronavirus stay on surfaces? The U.S. Department of Health and Services claim plastic and stainless steel as leading offenders. Photo credit: Sudabeh Sarker

Researchers assume that the virus may last for a shorter period of time on absorbent materials such as cardboard. Other soft materials, such as fabric, may allow droplets to continue the virus to dry up faster and prevent its spread.

“There isn’t a huge risk to shopping for secondhand clothes, but there is still a risk. Wash it when you get home and don’t touch the items too much, and you’ll be fine,” said Pak.

Even so, the CDC recommends clothing to be washed in the hottest possible setting. Sunglasses and accessories should be wiped down with CDC-approved disinfectant products to ensure safety.