Grocery Stores Struggle to Keep Up Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

March 15, 2020 Updated: March 15, 2020
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Many shelves lay empty at grocery stores across the nation as buyers stocked up in preparation to hunker down amid the coronavirus outbreak. Several major grocery chains cut hours, and many stores rationed some essentials to abate restocking woes.

The items most often reported as lacking included toilet paper, hand sanitizer, paper towels, and bottled water. Some customers also reported that milk, eggs, pasta, and flour were out of stock.

COVID-19 had spread to all 50 states and the District of Columbia by March 15. In most states, the number of confirmed cases remains in the double digits, according to a tally by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Of the more than 6o deaths attributed to the virus in the United States, at least 40 occurred in Washington state, with a majority of those at the Life Care Center nursing facility in Kirkland, which suffered a major outbreak. Most of the dead nationwide were elderly people who typically had underlying health conditions, Just the News reported.

President Donald Trump announced a national emergency on March 13 while the House of Representatives passed an aid package to fund testing for the virus, paid sick leave, and additional food stamps.

States and localities have been declaring their own states of emergency and adopting protective measures such as banning large gatherings and encouraging people to avoid crowds.

Many Americans responded by stockpiling food and hygiene supplies. Some even tried to exploit the situation by hoarding high-demand items for reselling.

Paradoxically, the shopping fever led to long lines and packed stores, creating exactly the crowds authorities have called for avoiding.

“It’s crazy. People have gone crazy,” said Alexis Coppol, a resident of the District of Columbia who was shopping at the bulk grocery store Costco. “I mean, I’m not too worried, but if we get put on a lockdown, I want to make sure I have food.”

Grocers have scrambled to control the crowds and restock.

Publix, which runs over 1,200 stores, mostly in Florida and some southern states, moved its closing time from 10 p.m. to 8 p.m., starting March 14, “to better serve our customers, give our store teams time to conduct additional preventive sanitation and restock product on our shelves,” the company said in a March 13 tweet.

Walmart announced on March 14 it will limit opening hours to 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. starting March 15 until further notice.

“This will help ensure associates are able to stock the products our customers are looking for and to perform cleaning and sanitizing,” the country’s largest grocery retailer said in a release. “Stores currently operating under more reduced hours (for example they regularly close at 10 p.m. or open at 7 a.m.) will keep their current hours of operation.”

Its chief executive, Doug McMillon, said at a news conference with Trump on March 13 that the retailer was having trouble keeping up with demand for products such as hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and paper goods.

“Hand sanitizer is going to be very difficult to have 100 percent in stock for some time,” McMillon said. “We’re still replenishing it … but as soon as it hits the stores, it’s going. The same thing is true for the other categories I mentioned.”

Pharmacy chain Walgreens and supermarket chain Kroger instituted purchase limits to stabilize their inventories.

Kroger, the second-largest grocery store operator, limited the number of cold, flu, and sanitary products per visit, while Walgreens said it was limiting disinfectant wipes and cleaners, face masks, hand sanitizers, thermometers, and gloves to four per customer.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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