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Is it safe to shop in person for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X?

New console season arrives in the midst of a pandemic

The video game industry, like many others, has been impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Major gaming conventions and events were canceled. Video games have been delayed as developers shift to remote working setups. All for good reason: these cancelations, delays, and adjustments have been crucial for ensuring the safety of the people who make and play games.

In November, the pandemic will affect the industry’s new console season, with the launch of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. Fans will face an unusual and timely question: Is it safe to shop in person for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X during launch?

Sony announced in early November that it won’t sell the PlayStation 5 in retail stores on launch day, a measure to keep crowds limited. “Please don’t plan on camping out or lining up at your local retailer on launch day in hopes of finding a PS5 console for purchase,” Sony Interactive Entertainment communications director Sid Shuman wrote. “Be safe, stay home, and place your order online.” People with in-store pickups at local retailers will be able to do so at “designated appointment time[s],” Sony said. Likewise, Best Buy and Walmart announced Thursday that it will only sell its consoles online, too.

But on Nov. 10 and 12, when the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are released, respectively, stores may still be more crowded than normal, which puts both employees and shoppers at risk. Sony’s policy may help mitigate crowds at stores during the console launch day. However, some shoppers may be undeterred, which could be a problem.

To answer the question of whether it’s safe to shop in person for new consoles, Polygon spoke to epidemiologists and health experts to determine the risks of a crowded console launch. To put it bluntly, crowds at stores on Nov. 10 and 12 — and, of course, other days — are unsafe for shoppers and employees.

What’s going on with the next-gen console launch?

The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X launches will be held during another surge in COVID-19 cases in the United States. On Nov. 4, the United States had its first-ever day with over 100,000 new COVID-19 cases, and cases have been steadily rising for weeks.

Rules for gatherings, both inside and outside, vary by country and state, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that in-person gatherings are higher risk activities, and that people should implement social distancing and mask wearing to reduce spread. Risk goes up as the number of people increases, as well as how long the people are gathered together. Community transmission rates are also important to keep an eye on — a higher rate means higher risk.

There is no way to make sure that it’s 100% safe to visit a store in-person. The safest way to make sure you don’t contract COVID-19 is to stay home, according to Dr. Krysia Lindan, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at University of San Francisco.

That said, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t go to the store — just that doing so increases risk for you, the people in your household, and employees working at the store. Stores can mitigate risk to ensure a safer experience for customers and employees. Stores should have policies in place to try to minimize the spread of COVID-19, but remember: minimizing risk isn’t the same as eliminating it.

Polygon asked several retailers about safety plans for the console launch week. No major retailers — including Target, Walmart, or GameStop — provided us with detailed information. Of course, stores will continue their standard COVID procedures, but they declined to share plans for the potential of increased crowds. However, some retailers have since opted out of selling consoles in-store — at least for some time, in hopes of keeping crowds low.

GameStop sign on the front of a strip mall building Photo: James Bareham/Polygon

Perhaps retailers don’t expect extra crowds, though evidence is pointing toward lines: In September, people lined up by the dozens in front of local GameStop stores to pre-order the PlayStation 5, after console pre-orders sold out quickly online. And despite Sony announcing that PlayStation 5 sales would be online-only at launch, it’s unclear how many consumers expecting to buy one in person on Nov. 12 will receive that message, with just one week’s notice.

It’s clear that buying a next-gen console online and having it delivered to your house is the safest option with regard to your own personal safety. Some stores, like Target, also allow customers to make purchases online and use drive up car-side pickup at their nearest store. It is, however, unclear what protocols are in place in distribution, which could potentially put warehouse and shipping workers at risk.

Can I go to a store for an Xbox Series X or a PlayStation 5 or not?

Like we mentioned before, the choice is yours to go to a store to buy an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5. You’ll need to assess the risk on your own terms to allow for the safest possible experience. Some things to consider are whether you live with or are in close contact with people at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19, like elderly or immunocompromised people. If that’s the case, your decision directly puts other people at risk, too.

If you do decide to shop in-person, there are some additional things you can consider.

One thing to think about early on is how different this trip might be than any other trip to the store over the last six months. While console launches have often brought out massive crowds in previous generations, the combination of a global pandemic and the ease of online ordering and pre-ordering means stores might be a lot less crowded than they’ve been in the past. If you call up your local store or drive by shortly after the release and it’s not too busy then picking up a new console — if they have them in stock — won’t be much different from a regular post-COVID trip to the grocery store. Just wear your mask, keep your distance, and be respectful and responsible. But it’s when the stores get crowded that things get a little more complicated and the risk of infection starts to rise.

Medical experts said the biggest concern is the potential for large groups of people congregating inside poorly ventilated stores, as this is the perfect environment for the virus to spread. Stores must be able to handle any interactions and pickups in a controlled way, to allow for social distancing. The first thing you should do before picking up your next-gen console in person is call a few local stores and see what their plans are. Is there a plan in place for crowded stores?

If stores plan to have crowds, the best option would be for shoppers to remain outside, where risk of spreading the virus is lower.

“I think the other thing is keeping a limited number of people in the store at a time making a kind of system whereby people kind of get the console and they move to the next place to pay for it, where you’re not having everybody all go in together,” said Dr. Atif Kukaswadia, who has a Ph.D. in epidemiology.

Xbox Series X video game console photographed on a dark gray background Photo: Henry Hargreaves for Polygon

Stores may also rely on more basic rules, like enforcing a mandatory mask policy — something experts said is effective and easy. Each expert we spoke to warned against taking trips to stores that don’t require masks, even if you’re wearing one yourself. For instance, U.S. GameStop customers are required to wear masks in store, with limited amounts of customers allowed in store at one time. However, GameStop employees cannot deny service to an unmasked customer, according to a GameStop internal memo released in July.

“Masks are more to prevent you from passing it on to other people, rather than other people passing it on to you,” Kukaswadia said. “You’re wearing the mask to protect others, and if you’re doing that you’re doing your part to help others shop [safely].”

He continued: “But if you’re the only one wearing a mask, you could still pick [the virus] up.” and the likelihood is still high.” One possible solution to an issue like this that Kukaswadia suggests is simply to find the time that the store is the least busy and come back then.

Dr. Nancy Nielsen, the Senior Associate Dean for Health Policy at Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Buffalo, put it bluntly: “Everyone should be masked.”

Regardless of store policies, there is more to consider: For instance, what is the spread of the virus like in your area? Is it an area with a fairly low number of cases, or is spread high?

“If the rate of COVID-19 infection in one’s community is higher than 5%, or is rising, it is really unwise to go to a crowded store,” said Nielsen.

What is the best way to buy an Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5?

While still not infection-proof, curbside pickup is about as close as you can get according to the experts we spoke to. Curbside pickup, particularly when both the customer and the employee are wearing masks, or when the employee simply places the item in the car without interacting closely with the customer has a fairly low chance of spreading COVID-19, making it easily the most preferable option. To mitigate risk even more, some retailers are assigning appointment times to people picking up their consoles in this way. Best Buy customers have already begun to receive emails to schedule appointments to pick up their pre-orders in stores. Other retailers will likely have similar systems; on Twitter, Target wrote that neither the Xbox Series X nor PlayStation 5 would be available for walk-up customers.

the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition standing to the left of the PlayStation 5, which has the DualSense controller standing to the right Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment

“[Curbside pickup is] the closest thing you can get to home delivery really,” said Dr. Kukaswadia. “It’s super convenient, super easy. You’re not interacting with people that you would be interacting with in the store.”

He continued: “What we do know about [COVID-19] — and this could change — is that it’s not really something that lives for a long time on surfaces. So you could, if you want to be really safe, take it home and either take the box out and leave it on the table for a couple of hours, or take it out and Lysol wipe the sides of it just to be 100% sure. It might be overkill, but, in COVID terms I feel like overkill is worth it.”

As for in-store options, there isn’t anything that’s going to keep you 100% safe, but your best option is to visit a store when it’s least crowded. On the one hand, this could mean waiting a few days to get one of the new consoles, until lines have died down. After all, Amazon has sent out emails to customers that pre-ordered the new consoles letting them know they might not arrive on launch day, and most stores are likely to have a limited supply of consoles for customers that didn’t pre-order. Your safest option may be to simply wait a few days when the launch day hype has subsided.