Shoppers Concerned About a Shutdown Swarm to Southern California Stores as Coronavirus Grows

Story by Larry Altman

Panicked and worried shoppers concerned about a coronavirus shutdown swamped Southern California grocery stores this weekend, finding long lines with hundreds of people waiting to get inside, shelves emptied of toilet paper, meat and canned foods.

A spokesman for Ralphs supermarkets said the company and its employees were trying to keep up with the demand – even looking to fill up to 250 jobs — but there were no expected shortages of any products in the coming days except for hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol.

“We want to urge people to be calm and shop with composure,” Ralphs spokesman John Votava said. “Take what you need and leave something behind for your neighbor.”

Beyond heading to Ralphs, shoppers flocked to other supermarket chains like Trader Joes and Costco. Lines of customers stretched across parking lots.

Man in orange sweatshirt with mask with a shopping cart, outside of Costco on March 15th, 2020

“It’s crazy,” said a customer named Erin at Ralphs in Manhattan Beach. “It’s nuts. I don’t know. It’s crazy.”

The demand for fresh food might become greater. On Sunday, as the number of COVID-19 cases increased to 335 in California, including six deaths, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on operators of bars and nightclubs to close. Newsom did not ask restaurants to shut down, but  called for operators to reduce occupancy by half and practice social distancing – keeping people at least 6 feet apart.

The shopping spree began last week when toilet paper, hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol disappeared from store shelves. By the end of the week, after professional sports leagues, school districts, colleges and more decided it was best to shut down and keep everyone at home, anxious customers rushed back out to fill their shopping carts with canned vegetables, Ramen, macaroni and cheese, ice cream – yes, ice cream – and meat and chicken.

Stores became even busier at the weekend.

Erin said she’d seen the store just as busy on Christmas Eve, but the store shelves weren’t empty.

“Chicken is completely gone,” she said. “There’s a little pork as well as sausage. And the rest is depleted…The alcohol aisle is also quite depleted.”

Even customers who went early found lines surrounding Costco and other stores. Social media users across the nation posted video of lines running around buildings and down streets. Inside, signs pointed out that toilet paper, paper towels, latex gloves, liquid soap, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes were long gone.

Customers at Trader Joes posted photos and video of empty shelves and displays.

A Twitter user, @AuntieJessieB, posted time-lapse video of Trader Joe’s crews stocking shelves.

“These grocery workers are also out there on the front lines of this chaos,” she wrote.

Line of shoppers in the parking lot outside of Costco in Marina Del Ray on March 15th, 2020

Ralphs announced that it would temporarily adjust its store hours to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. to allow workers to “properly sanitize everything” and restock shelves once the crowds are gone.

“People are grabbing as much as they can,” Votava said. “It’s taking a toll on our stores.”

Votava, however, said warehouses are full and it’s simply a matter of keeping stores stocked. He suggested arriving early to shop.

So far, with “social distancing” a concern, there are no limits on how many customers can be inside a store at one time,  but Ralphs officials will look at that if necessary, Votava said. Stores are making sure to have sanitary wipes available for carts.

Votava also credited employees with dealing with the crowds.

“I am absolutely amazed by our associates at how they have maintained themselves and their composure,” he said. “They are handling a lot of customers a day and they are doing it with a lot of grace and friendliness.”

For their own safety, employees can wear masks if they wish, but Votava has not seen anyone do that.

Meanwhile, the huge demand has opened opportunities for job seekers. Ralphs has up to 250 immediate openings to deal with the increased demand. Applications are available at jobs.ralphs.com.

Manhattan Beach shopper Molly suggested everybody not panic because that will make the situation worse.

“Honestly, this will subside,” Molly said. “Keep calm, carry on, wash your hands, your face, don’t overthink this, and keep doing your same routine. And meditate.”