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Panic Shopping Puts Grocery Workers and Customers at Risk

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Photo: PxHere

by Alexandra Zayas for ProPublica

I grew up in Miami, where swarming the grocery store before a hurricane was a near-annual ritual.

We packed our carts and waited in long lines, but there was certainty, at least in that very moment, that we were safe. The storm had not yet arrived. It was still on the TV screen, a disc spinning slowly in the ocean, behind a cone of uncertainty that meant we might not get hit at all.

Now, we’re shopping in the middle of a hurricane we cannot see. The incubation period for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is two to 14 days. Experts have predicted some hospitals could start becoming overwhelmed by next week. This means a good number of those future patients are possibly infected right now, unaware, the virus incubating in their bodies and spreading.

It’s why governors across the country have closed bars and restaurants. But grocery stores remain open. So we’re maneuvering past one another in crowded aisles and fighting over frozen food. We’re waiting in snaking lines and exchanging money with tired cashiers, who say they have been working for six days straight and have never seen so many customers in their lives.

Some people can’t afford to buy the recommended two to three weeks of supplies at once, and they have no choice but to keep venturing out. But others are loading up on everything they need, then being tempted, by pictures of empty shelves, to run back to the store for more.

Epidemiologists and doctors have been warning the public for days that braving crowds for any reason is a gamble; if a trip isn’t essential, they say, don’t risk getting yourself sick or infecting others, including store workers who have no choice but to be there.

Reporter Caroline Chen got a call from a very worried woman in the Seattle area on Thursday night. She was working at a grocery store not far from where an Amazon employee had tested positive. She was elderly, in the “at risk” demographic being urged to stay home. But she was stuck working the cash register as people panic-shopped all around her. She had no paid sick leave and said she needed the job to pay rent.

She noted that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had announced that anyone who got sick, or was instructed to self-quarantine because of a confirmed exposure, would be compensated. But that meant she had to wait until she got sick. She was at a loss for options, she said. “I just want to go home now.”

Two days later, Chen heard from another grocery store employee in the Atlanta area who had similar concerns — not about herself but about her older co-workers. “I work with one elderly gentleman who works four days a week because he can’t afford to retire, but his health won’t let him work more than that.” She said management didn’t want cashiers to wear gloves, saying it would “scare” customers.

I spoke with a woman who works at a big chain grocery store in Kentucky, who said on Sunday that though the company was assuring customers they could use disinfecting wipes on their carts, there were none available. Staff was stretched so thin, no one was wiping down shelves. “My main concern is the sheer amount of people coming in,” she said. “Seeing people buy food that would last them a couple of weeks is way different from what I’m seeing now. People are buying ridiculous amounts of stuff. … People are making multiple trips.”

Mixed messaging from all levels of government is putting Americans at risk and will speed the spread of the coronavirus. No matter what politicians say, public health experts agree. Stay home, even if you feel fine.

You don’t need to panic-buy, said the mayor of Los Angeles, and county commissioners in Las Vegas, and the governor of Utah, and the president of the United States. Food suppliers and retailers told The New York Times that while they’re scrambling to keep up with demand, their supply chain remains strong.

Those who sell food are keenly aware of the risk of transmission. Stores are cutting hours to allow employees to restock and clean. Food delivery services have set up no-contact drop-offs, in which the driver leaves the order without interaction.

If you need to venture out, minimize your risk, said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose research focuses on improving public health preparedness and response. She uses wipes to hold open refrigerator doors and tucks away her phone so she doesn’t touch it.

Go grocery shopping at low-volume times, like early morning or late at night, said Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University. Try to maintain physical distance as much as you can. “The grocery store doesn’t make you magically exempt from viral spread.”

Dr. Leana Wen wants to make sure people understand the storm is already here. They didn’t seem to get that over the weekend when she saw them in line for diners and Starbucks, and gathered for a children’s birthday party.

“People are looking at the numbers in their communities and saying, ‘Oh, we only have one case,’” said the former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, who also served as president of Planned Parenthood. “Those are only the cases we know of, but because of extremely limited testing capacity and because of the incubation period, there may be thousands of cases in our community. We just don’t know.”


Alexandra Zayas is a senior editor at ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.


ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. We dig deep into important issues, shining a light on abuses of power and betrayals of public trust. Follow on Twitter at @ProPublica 

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Consumer News

LA Alcohol Delivery Sees Massive Spike Following “Safer at Home” Order

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Photo by Waldemar Brandt

LOS ANGELES — Following California Governor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s “Safer at Home” order, Saucey has experienced an unprecedented number of users on their alcohol delivery platform.

The company has seen a 300% increase in area sales compared to a standard delivery day.

“As the concern over the COVID-19 virus has grown at both the state and public levels, I think you’re not so coincidentally seeing a rise in people ordering alcohol,” says Saucey co-founder and CEO Chris Vaughn. “We’re feeling the effects elsewhere too, like San Francisco and Chicago; we’re doing our best to assist everyone who wants to use us and use us safely.”

The Los Angeles-based app recognizes they are among select delivery services fortunate enough to be helping people in a variety of markets as they practice social distancing and protect themselves from the rapidly spreading Coronavirus.

“It’s good to see so many people making lifestyle adjustments that let them be as comfortable as they can be during this time,” Vaughn said.

There may be something to that comfort thing. Since March 15, Saucey has seen ice cream sales spike by 500% and soft drinks by 150%. Lime sales also spiked by 350%, potentially pointing to more people making mixed drinks.

As for the alcohol, vodka tops Saucey’s spirit sales and is up by 250%. Whiskey, however, saw the greatest spike at 300%. IPAs held the highest increase in sales in their beer category at 300%.

Saucey will continue providing safe deliveries to the people of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, Chicago, New York, Dallas, Silicon Valley, Orange County and San Jose.

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Business

Costco Says Don’t Even Think of Returning Toilet Paper

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(TMZ) — Costco is unsympathetic to all the folks who stocked up on toilet paper like they were never gonna get another sheet … because the superstore has made it clear — NO REFUNDS!!!

This sign was plastered on the wall of the Costco in Pentagon City outside Washington, D.C. Now that people have settled in, it seems they’re realizing they have waaaaaay too much toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wipes and Lysol, and apparently some are trying to return it for cash.

You gotta be a little sympathetic … lots of people got laid off after they hoarded these items, so money is a huge issue.

Also on the no-return list — Water and rice.

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Consumer News

Drives Aim to Keep Historic Restaurants Alive During Outbreak

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Owner Dimitri Komarov at the famous Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood, Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

LOS ANGELES (Daily News) — With restaurants limited to takeout service or shut down completely by the coronavirus outbreak, a drive has been launched to keep some of Los Angeles’ legendary eateries from fading away.

Known as 1933 Group, the team operates about a dozen themed bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, including the barrel-shaped bar Idle Hour in North Hollywood, Harlowe in West Hollywood, Highland Park Bowl and the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.

Many of them have shuttered in recent days amid strict orders implemented by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Mayor Eric Garcetti, aiming to stem the flow of deadly COVID-19.

“We are struggling to survive,” said Dimitri Komarov, the venues’ co-owner. “The impact is dire. We’re losing our […]

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