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News >  Spokane

Pandemic panic shopping again empties Spokane stores of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other goods

UPDATED: Sat., March 14, 2020

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After she gathered what she needed from a chaotic Albertsons on the South Hill on Friday night, Pam Travis faced a choice: wait in a line that stretched back through the store, or ditch her cart, go home and drink wine.

She chose the latter.

“It was kind of upsetting,” Travis said in an interview the following afternoon at a quieter, calmer Fred Meyer on Thor Street, briefly interrupted by a passerby’s offer of a squirt of hand sanitizer.

President Donald Trump declared a national emergency Friday, as the number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases nationwide increased to more than 2,000, further intensifying a frenzied rush on Spokane-area supermarkets.

Images shared on social media showed overflowing shopping carts, long lines and shelves empty of toilet paper, frozen vegetables – even tofu.

By Saturday, when Spokane County announced its first three positive test results for the novel coronavirus, grocery stores were a comparatively serene scene after Friday’s free-for-all.

The Fred Meyer on Thor Street was stocked Saturday with fresh fruit, bread and most fresh vegetables. Like other area markets, it was depleted of toilet paper and many cleaning products. Pasta was nearly gone, as were jars of tomato sauce, though an employee was actively restocking it. Antibacterial wipes were stationed near the door, allowing customers to wipe down their baskets or shopping carts.

The Costco store in Spokane Valley was as quiet Saturday afternoon as it is during a Seahawks football game.

A store employee had scrawled a list of the pandemic essentials that were out of stock: toilet paper, paper towels, sanitizing wipes, rice and hand sanitizer.

But Friday the store, like others around town, was jammed with shoppers.

Clerks at both the Coeur d’Alene Costco and Fred Meyer stores painted a picture of a Friday evening shopping frenzy, as both stores were packed with customers buying everything.

Social media posts depicted a long line just to get into the Coeur d’Alene Costco Saturday morning, but by midday, the shopping experience was surprisingly calm for a Saturday afternoon. Lines at the registers were short or non-existent, and while there remained no toilet paper or hand sanitizer to be found, there was plenty of meat, dairy, produce and dry goods on hand.

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, Rosauers CEO Jeff Phillips asked shoppers to maintain some perspective.

The sort of panicked, rushed buying at grocery stores occurring as the coronavirus spreads has happened before, like after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We all got through that together, and we’ll get through this together,” Phillips said.

As the number of coronavirus cases increased this week, anxious shoppers increasingly took to stores to stock up on items like toilet paper, baby formula, antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer. For those items, Phillips said it’s hard for Rosauers to predict how nimbly manufacturers will be able to restock their warehouses and, in turn, how quickly Rosauers will be able to restock its own. In the meantime, it has imposed store-level purchasing limits on high-demand products.

“This is a short-term situation for us. I think people will realize over the next couple of weeks that the supply of food products will continue to happen,” Phillips said.

There is already a sense of urgency among vendors and suppliers to Rosauers, which has more than 20 stores throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

“Everybody in the food (industry) understands that we have an obligation as an essential, necessity service to provide product to customers,” Phillips said.

During the current crunch, Rosauers has tapped every employee it can, while reminding them to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect themselves and stay at home if they are experiencing symptoms or may have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19.

“We’ve got everybody on board, it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation. That’s been the case for a while. It’s a tough labor environment right now. Every state that we operate in has very low unemployment rates. We have open positions we’re trying to fill,” Phillips said.

A manager at the Safeway store in Liberty Lake reported the store had seen some of its highest sales numbers in recent days. Business was a bit slower Saturday, but not by much.

Maria J. Howard, an ethicist and assistant professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University, said buying a few extra meals is fine but discouraged hoarding, “be that face masks or toilet paper or frozen foods.”

“This is not so bad that it will shut absolutely everything down,” Howard said. “But what will happen is if individuals or individual families hoard resources, there are families that will go without.”

Dr. Bob Lutz, the Spokane Regional Health District’s health officer, said at a news conference people should “to some degree” have a preparedness plan regardless of the emergency.

There are some who might not have access to the grocery store. Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington has more than 1,300 apartment units and many residents who are senior citizens and the “most vulnerable to get sick,” said Rob McCann, the nonprofit’s president and CEO.

This week, Catholic Charities prepared for the possibility those residents would be told to stay indoors to reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Catholic Charities staff has been advising residents it stands ready to deliver food and other necessities.

“We have staff in every building, and we have an army of volunteers. We can mobilize staff from other programs,” McCann said.

Dale Westhaver, a local restaurant owner, described the scene inside Fred Meyer on Thor Street as “insane” Friday night. He grabbed the last pack of paper towels after initially grabbing single rolls. He missed out on toilet paper and big bags of frozen vegetables.

“There’s plenty of booze,” he said.

Reporters Jared Brown and Eli Frankovich, and editors Carolyn Lamberson and John Stucke contributed to this story.

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