Coronavirus: Americans rush to stock up on essentials as bug spreads

Shelves normally stocked with hand sanitiser and toilet paper sit empty at a Giant Supermarket in Dunkirk, Maryland. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - American shoppers stood in long lines outside grocery stores on Friday (March 13), waiting to buy essentials like toilet paper, pasta, and bottled water, as a worsening coronavirus crisis stoked fears of shortages across the United States.

The run on certain goods prompted major retailers to enforce purchase limits to ensure stores shelves were not stripped bare.

Still, worried shoppers cleared out grocery and drug store shelves from Houston to Los Angeles as the virus spread and President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to fight the spread of the disease, which has killed 41 people in the United States.

Big businesses including have urged employees to work from home, while schools, universities and cultural institutions are closed across the country.

Marlene Russell, 69, a retired school guidance counsellor and active medical technician from Mendham, New Jersey, used a sanitising cloth to wipe down the handle of her shopping cart after packing groceries into her car at Wegmans in Hanover, New Jersey.

"An abundance of caution - semper paratus, like the Coast Guard motto that means 'always ready'," she said, pointing to her car's licence plate holder emblazoned with the saying.

Her husband, Gary Russell, 77, a retired Coast Guardsman and businessman, said they had stocked up on wine, cheese and fruit to entertain friends who had travelled to New York from Florida to root for Creighton in the Big East basketball tournament.

After they arrived, the event was cancelled due to the coronavirus.

Wegmans was packed with shoppers by mid-morning on Friday, hours after about 40 customers lined up waiting for the store to open. Some shelves were stripped bare of anti-bacterial wipes and food staples such as bulk rice and dried beans, and others were posted with signs limiting purchases of hand sanitiser and bottled water.

At grocer Fairway Market in Manhattan's Upper West Side neighbourhood, shelves normally full of pasta, Oreo cookies, pasta sauce, crackers and toilet paper were depleted on Thursday evening.

On the West Coast, grocery stores including Ralphs, Pavilions and Trader Joe's had sold out of products ranging from Lysol cleaning wipes to fresh eggs.


Johnson and Johnson accelerated production of over-the-counter pain killer Tylenol to ease any spot inventory crunches, it said.

J&J, which also makes Listerine mouthwash, said it was shipping stocks of products in a controlled manner. Its plants that make other consumer products were increasing production to ensure retailers were well supplied, it said, adding it did not expect any shortages.

Pharmacy chain Walgreens Boots Alliance and supermarket chain Kroger said they had placed purchase limits to stabilise inventory.

Kroger placed a limit on the number of cold, flu and sanitary products per order, while Walgreens said it was limiting disinfectant wipes and cleaners, face masks, hand sanitisers, thermometers and gloves to four per customer.

John Terry, 33, went to a Manhattan Whole Foods to pick up chicken and other food items his wife was unable to get at grocery stores near their Jersey City home.

"It was insanity," he said about his local grocery stores.

"She went to Costco and there was a line down the block. At another one, the shelves were picked clean."

Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru, said labour shortages due to everything from school closures to illness could cause business disruptions that last several months.

"It's a lot more than stockpiling toilet paper or Purell.

This is going to have implications on our food supply and supply chain for months to come," Lempert said.

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