Nationwide, parents are finally finding the time to sort through bins of clothes, toys, and household items. But there are some rules about spring cleaning during the coronavirus pandemic that everyone should follow.

small girl with stuffed animal
Credit: Samii Bebe

"We've cleaned out the garage, storage in our basement, and the kids' closets," said Therese McGady, a marketing manager for a software company. She and her husband, Patrick, a national sales director, are both juggling full-time jobs from home during the week while helping their 7-year-old with e-learning and occupying their 4-year-old. Sound familiar? The McGadys, like so many American families right now, are adjusting to a new normal. But, that new normal also opens up what once was overscheduled weekends of kids' sporting events, birthday parties, and dinners out with friends.

McGady said she was prepared to bring her bags of kids clothes, shoes, and toys to the local Goodwill in her home state of Illinois, where a shelter-in-place order has been in effect since March 21, but suspected they may be closed. "I'm glad I thought to call before I left the house and heard the automated recording," she said, "I'm still keeping everything in bags to bring there when they do reopen."

But is it even safe to donate these items? What about selling them online or giving them away to neighbors? Many are wondering if they should discard them all together. Organizations like Goodwill are asking Americans to hold on to whatever they'd like to donate or resell for now, but there are things you can do to prepare for when we do "flatten the curve." Here's what to know.

The New Research on How Long COVID-19 Survives on Surfaces

According to a study from the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UCLA and Princeton University scientists published online March 17 in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—can survive for several hours to days on surfaces:

  • Up to four hours on copper (pennies, jewelry)
  • Up to 24 hours on cardboard (donation boxes, Amazon shipping boxes)
  • Up to three days on plastic (children's toys, cookware)

Based on what is currently known about how COVID-19 spreads, we know person-to-person transmission is the most likely source of infection—respiratory droplets passed from talking, coughing, or sneezing within about six feet. (Hence why social distancing is key, and you hear so much about the need for more personal protective equipment or PPE for our first responders).

"We are asking everyone to limit donations to what is absolutely needed right now," says Los Angeles-based pediatrician and official American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson, Tanya Altmann, M.D., FAAP. "Food donations are absolutely necessary; toys are not."

According to Dr. Altmann, if a friend or neighbor does leave something for your kids on your porch after cleaning out their closets, it's a good idea to bag it up and have it sit in the garage for the recommended 24 hours; the same goes for any packages or shipments you might receive. "Anything that is already in your house is OK; we are most concerned about any new things you might be bringing into your house."

Donation Prep Work Should Involve Disinfecting All Items

Typically, thrift store items are not cleaned and disinfected before resale, however this practice may change in a post-pandemic America. We will know more as time goes on. For now, the CDC says these are the proper steps (aka best practice) for the prevention of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses:

  • Step 1: Put on gloves. Gloves can be disposable ones you throw away after one use or reusable gloves dedicated for cleaning and disinfecting only.
  • Step 2: Scrub with soap and water. Any household cleaner and water will do, says Dr. Altmann. If your child is teething, it's helpful to have a bin for dirty toys—the ones they've had in their mouth. Keep the bin out of your child's reach and wash the items when you have time.
  • Step 3: Disinfect. Dishwashers are a convenient and effective way to disinfect action figures and other small toys. A list of effective COVID-19 disinfecting products is available here. Since many cleaning products are scarce on shelves, Altmann says families can make their own disinfectant by diluting household bleach. Prepare a bleach solution by mixing 5 tablespoons (one-third cup) bleach per gallon of water or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water.
  • Step 4: Wash hands when finished cleaning.

Now if you have a toddler or a preschooler at home, they will most likely want to be your little helper in this cleaning and disinfecting process. It can be a struggle, but Dr. Altmann suggests finding another chore for them to work on while you do this one. "If you have older kids who are able to help, it's OK to involve them. It's all about safety since these are chemicals," she says.

Don't forget, kids have a hard time parting with their favorite toys. Before you give any away, Dr. Altmann recommends explaining to your kids what you are doing and where the toys are going. "If I hand down some of my 5-year-old's things to neighbors, I try to teach him that we get new things because we want to hand our old things down."

Where Parents Can Donate Clothing and Toys

Options are limited. The same day the NEJM study came out, Nemours Children's Health System sent out a tweet temporarily suspending all donations of toy and play materials—a precautionary move many organizations and donation centers would subsequently follow as the week progressed. The Columbus, Indiana fire department, for example, sent the following tweet on March 24: "To help do our part of stopping the COVID-19 virus from spreading, until further notice, we are no longer accepting toy donations at any of our fire stations."

As of April 6, 96 percent of Goodwill stores across the U.S. were closed as a result of COVID-19. Lauren Lawson-Zilai, Senior Director of Public Relations for Goodwill Industries International, says each local Goodwill is operated by a separate board of directors and president/CEO. "Those Goodwills still accepting donations are processing them based on a number of safety precautions, using a variety of cleaning supplies as well as holding donations for a period of days, or asking donors to place their donations directly into a container to limit exposure to employees and the public."

Lawson-Zilai said if your local Goodwill is closed, hold on to your donation until they are able to accept it. The revenue from Goodwill sales funds employment placement, job training, and support services—such as financial education, mentoring, and virtual training—for anyone facing challenges to finding employment. To see when Goodwill will reopen and get updates, you can visit their official website to search by zip code or call 1-800-GOODWILL.

Dr. Altmann anticipates there being a lot of donations at thrift stores once they reopen, but she says donation boxes are going to need to be isolated for the recommended 24 hours. Big plastic toys not inside a donation box will need to be isolated for the recommended 2 to 3 days. "This virus is impacting people in so many ways, especially economically. We will want to come together to help those in need when this over, but we need to do it safely."

What About PPE Donations?

If you do come across any personal protective equipment while cleaning your garage or basement, there are a number of places accepting those kinds of donations. The American Medical Association recommends contacting your local hospital or health department; many of them already have information posted on their websites. The University of Chicago Medical Center, for example, developed guidelines for what supplies are needed, as well as how to donate them. They are currently accepting donations like masks, face shields, disposable booties, safety goggles, gloves, and gowns.

You can also check out the GetUsPPE website, which was started by a group of doctors and supported by a volunteer team of developers, designers, and organizers. "More than 1,500 requests for donations have been made by health care workers across the country seeking things like N95 respirator masks, surgical masks, hand sanitizer, face shields and protective gowns," according to The Wall Street Journal.

Why You Should Skip Selling on Facebook Marketplace Right Now

With the unemployment rate higher than it was at any point since the Great Depression, cleaning out your closets and selling your things on Facebook Marketplace or apps like OfferUp may seem like an alternative source for quick income. But the medical community is asking for everyone to do their part to stop the spread of COVID19—this includes #StayHomeAprilCOVID19, the hashtag coined by Dr. Altmann. "As all of us are spending more time on screens, it may be tempting to place a bid on a local item that's offered for free or for a very good price, but we all have a social responsibility in this. Unless it is something urgent like food or cleaning products, save it for now."

Dr. Altmann also recommends parents hold off on traditional Easter baskets, and other holiday or special occasion gifts this year. "Traditions are going to be different this year, and that's OK."

Facebook Marketplace is urging users to  first and foremost follow local health guidelines about physical distancing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus while using the platform. They also offer safety tips like using mobile payment services and to clean items before you bring them home when buying items like children's clothing, toys, and household items. "We all need to work together as a nation—and that means that everybody should be working together, including these businesses," says Dr. Altmann. "The longer we are out and about trading items and sharing spaces, the longer it will take to stop this virus from spreading."