Coronavirus fears empty store shelves of toilet paper, bottled water, masks as shoppers stock up

Northern Italy residents cleared the shelves at a supermarket amid fears around the coronavirus outbreak. USA TODAY

Coronavirus fears empty store shelves of toilet paper, bottled water, masks as shoppers stock up

On Thursday afternoon when Ryan Ozawa hit the Iwilei Costco next door to his office in Hawaii, he ran straight into a long line of carts stretching the length of the store as shoppers waited for toilet paper and paper towels.

Costco employees were limiting shoppers to five packages of each and hand loading them into carts. As pallet after pallet was cleaned out, one shopper at the end of the line shouted out "The end of the line for the toilet paper and paper towels is right here."

Ozawa had to give up and return Friday morning when the store opened to snag a stash of toilet paper and paper towels for himself and his co-workers. With so many of the state’s food and goods imported, panic buying is common whenever a hurricane or other emergency threatens Hawaii. 

“Local health officials told us not to panic buy and not to freak out," Ozawa, 45, communications director for tech firm Hawaii Information Service, said, "and that was enough to get us to go out and buy everything.”

Similar scenes have played out across the country and around the globe in recent days as consumers, heeding warnings from health officials, equipped themselves with basic necessities in case the coronavirus spreads to their community.

Shoppers reported stocking up on medications, cleaning supplies, hand sanitizers, face masks, surgical gloves and pantry staples. Social media was filled with photos of shelves emptied of flats of bottled water.

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Coronavirus threat could empty shelves

More widespread shortages could hit retailers in the coming weeks, experts warn, which could drive up prices.

"Further delays in the restart of production could begin to result in out-of-stocks at U.S. shelves as early as mid-April," Wells Fargo analysts wrote in a recent report.

Advice to consumers: If something is "mission critical" to your life, get it now, says Sam Polakoff, president and CEO at Nexterus Inc., which sources supplies for companies. 

“If the price hasn’t increased yet, it probably will soon," he said. "Likely, prices will go up 25 to 30% temporarily.”

Retailers are wrestling with shortages as shoppers strip shelves, pushing suppliers to help them restock quickly. CVS said in a statement to USA TODAY that it is seeing increased demand for hand sanitizer and face masks but no "significant shortage" of disinfectant wipes and sprays.

Shortages won't be limited to basic necessities. Electronics, apparel and housewares, all of which are reliant on China, may also be affected, said Neil Saunders, managing director of Global Data, a retail consultancy.

If the outbreak is extensive and lasts into the second half of 2020, there could be shortages of apparel and back to school products. "We believe this could put the back to school season at risk for many U.S. based retailers," Cowen analysts said in a report.

Coronavirus health fears gripped the U.S. as the nation's second case of unexplained coronavirus – in which a person emerges with the infection with no obvious indication of how the virus was transmitted – was reported in California Friday. Oregon officials also announced that the state has identified its first presumed case of the virus. 

The number of those sickened by the virus stood at 85,176 Friday. The death count has reached 2,919, most of them in China.

Preparing for coronavirus threat: Stocking up on food

West Texas mom Sara Carpenter was worried enough about potential shortages to stockpile food and other supplies for her family.

Coronavirus can cause fever, coughing, wheezing and pneumonia. Health officials think it spreads mainly from droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

“It’s hard to decipher what’s fact and what’s fiction between the politics, the paranoid and the media, but there’s too many potential red flags to not take the steps to prepare for the worst,” said Carpenter, who declined to say where in Texas she lives out of fear of becoming a target of thieves. “We have a 2-year-old daughter and the biggest concern would be how this virus would affect her.”

So far N95 masks are the only necessity Carpenter has noticed in low supply locally but she's filling up her cart in case panic buying spreads.

“We need to be properly prepared for that and have what we need to survive at home until shelves are full again,” she said.


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