Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here.
In addition to fever, muscle aches and a dry cough, some secondary symptoms accompanying the coronavirus in Utah are packed parking lots, empty shelves and long lines at the grocery store.
One shopper said the atmosphere Thursday at a Utah big-box store looked like a scene straight out of a horror film. Another compared it to the Apocalypse.
It’s true, a pandemic like this rarely occurs. So it naturally leaves people feeling vulnerable about what to do beyond washing their hands and staying away from crowds.
One action they can control, though, is filling their cupboard with soups, pasta, canned beans and cookies in case they turn ill and can’t get to the store.
Indeed, health officials encouraged people to stock up on medicine and food — but not to hoard — so that if they get sick, they can minimize trips to the store. But too many Utahns are taking the advice to the extreme.
The run on items started a few weeks ago as bottled water, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other disinfecting products started flying off the shelves in stores and online.
Thursday’s announcement by Gov. Gary Herbert to limit mass gatherings to 100 people or less, in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has caused a second and larger wave of mass accumulation.
But there’s no need to overreact, Herbert said. Stockpiling bottled water — “when the state’s water supplies are abundant” — or fighting over paper towels and bleach is unnecessary.
“I know there is high anxiety,” he said. “But I hope people will be reasonable and rational. A run on stores and tempers flaring is not the Utah way.”
State epidemiologist Angela Dunn also said that people who are healthy — and not showing symptoms — can go to the grocery store, eat out at restaurants, go to a park.
Ryan Moore said he tried to go to the Walmart near his home in Syracuse to get ingredients for sloppy Joes on Thursday. “I knew as soon as I pulled into the parking lot it was going to be ugly. But I was shocked at the panic I saw.”
From ground beef and chicken to frozen pork and vegetables, “all gone," he said. “It was insane.”
No store was immune from Costco and Walmart to Trader Joe’s and Smith’s Food & Drug.
“You walk through the grocery store and it feels like you are in a horror movie,” said Layton resident Pennie Thiros-Velis. “People have lost their minds.”
Even the state liquor store was packed, after a rumor on social media circulated that the state-run outlets would be closing. Lines were long and resembled the busy days before Thanksgiving and Christmas. The agency, tried to calm fears, by posting on Twitter that “no stores are closing other than normal closing times.”
The frenzy continued Friday. At 9 a.m. the parking lot at the Harmons Grocery near 3300 South and 1300 East was full, and the checkout line required a 45-minute wait. But people were polite. The store was still out of toilet paper — and, according to one shopper, someone was caught stealing rolls out of the restroom.
At a Smith’s in Woods Cross, workers were restocking everything from bottled water and eggs to tortillas. It was all hands on deck to keep the checkout lines moving. A bookkeeper, who years before had started as a cashier, found herself working the register again and a baker was bagging groceries.
“We believe that everyone deserves to have access to fresh, affordable food and essentials, especially in times of uncertainty,” Kroger said in a statement. “That’s why our teams are working so hard to keep our stores clean, open and stocked.”
On March 2, the national grocery chain — which operates Smith’s Food & Drug stores in Utah — began limiting the number of cold, flu and sanitary products so all shoppers can have access to the items they need.
“Supply chain teams are working to ensure that the food, medicine and cleaning supplies our customers need are reaching our stores as quickly as possible,” the statement said, “and are available through our pickup, delivery and shipping services.”
The lines are short at specialty markets, like Caputo’s in Salt Lake City, said CEO Matt Caputo. “We specialize in preserved things, too.”
And the Winter Market at the Rio Grande Depot will continue as usual Saturday, said Executive Director Alison Einerson. Farmers will have everything from apples and arugula to spinach and squash.
But, just like Costco, product sampling has been suspended.