Shopping in the age of coronavirus

A single box of ramen noodles remains on the shelves in a Galveston store.

Saturday morning, I got up early and walked into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

Parking my truck, I paused to capture a picture of the sunrise with my phone. In the distance, an orange sliver peeked over the Gulf’s horizon, clouds softening the image. A pair of brown pelicans drifted carefree across the sky, letting only the next thermal determine their future.

So far, so good, I thought to myself.

As I approached the building, the double-glass doors opened before me, washing away the illusion of normalcy like green pollen in a spring rainstorm.

Going to a grocery store during peak times is not all that scary. I’ve survived a quick run for a box of cornbread mix on Thanksgiving morning.

Today, I immediately recognized, would be curiously different.

With lines stretching far into the aisles as when a hurricane is headed our way, people strung across the store. But something was different in the air — an urgency and uneasy sense of the unknown.

If I were a shark, I am sure I’d say I was picking up on the smell of fear.

I understand the dangers of the coronavirus. My 92-year-old dad is under lockdown in a retirement home, and my daughter manages a low immunity system because of Crohn’s Disease. I respect the medical challenges this unique strain represents, as well as my personal responsibility.

But what is the deal with everyone buying toilet paper? Nowhere in news reports does it recommend that people get as much toilet paper as possible. Did I miss something?

Turning my cart around near the empty shelves where eggs usually roost, I see the store manager moving items. His eyes are heavy, his body tired.

“Wow,” I say. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know what to say,” he says. “People are shopping like they are to going to be sequestered for a year.”

We both force a smile, each knowing all we can do is watch the behavior play itself out.

I walk the store, making notes about not only what shelves are empty, but conversely, those left relatively untouched.

Water. Individual bottles and gallons, inventory pretty much drained. Blue Bell ice cream appears to be getting drawn down. Pinto beans so cleaned out you have to read the label on the shelf to know what is missing.

On the other hand, fresh vegetable and fruit supplies appear normal, bread shelves are functional, and for some reason, beer suppliers are loading the stores up, inventory stacked as far as you can see in front of plump coolers.

I’m not sure what this says about our society. While most of us are all well-adjusted adults, I can’t help but feel our grocery shopping selections are most telling. Peeking into someone else’s cart is always a highly practiced sport at the grocery store, but this is the same concept on steroids.

I recognized exhaustion on the face of the woman checking my groceries.

I’m pretty sure all she wants is a nap.

Leonard Woolsey: 409-683-5207;

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(10) comments

Ron Shelby

It’s the same scene in Atlanta Georgia’s suburbs, with the addition of significant increases in gun and ammo sales. Gun stores are reporting sales increases of more than 400% during the past four days.

Bailey Jones

In HEB the other day, I noticed that shelf after shelf of Ramen noodles were empty, while there was plenty of Pacific Organic soups left. No hamburger to be found but plenty of "all natural humanely raised" pork and chicken products. No white bread, but I found my favorite "Killer Mike's Power Seed" whole grain bread. No bottled water or soft drinks, but I found my usual kombucha. It's good to be a tree hugging sandal wearing hippie I guess.

Wayne D Holt

Bailey, I've been surprised by the choices made--and not made-- when I view the shelves, too. Food items of very high quality, organic and such, sit next to empty shelves where prefab mac and cheese once regally sat.

If ever there was a time to pick up whatever was available, wouldn't the middle of an unknown event like this be it? I can't imagine leaving the store empty handed because the organic soup cost a dollar more a can.

We'll probably know within a few weeks if this whole episode was overblown in the US or if, in fact, we are in deep trouble. Right now, lessening contact may be painful for our businesses but ultimately it will mean a faster bounce back to better times. Let's hope we have just laid in a year's worth of breakfast granola rather than dinner for 12 in June.

Rodney Dunklee

Just a question. If the virus dies in about 8 hours on hard surfaces why are schools that are going to be closed talk of deep cleaning and sometimes you see reports of an army of cleaning workers in special suits disinfecting areas that could be closed for a few hours to get the same result? Or can the virus live longer in a ball of spit at room temperature?

Bailey Jones

The numbers I heard on the news yesterday is up to 3 days on some surfaces. But the virus hasn't been well studied, so it's out of an abundance of caution. And it makes people feel like something is being done.

Bailey Jones

Here's a link to the NPR article which discusses a recent study, and contains a link to the scientific paper.

This study just came out Friday, so maybe disinfection regimens will change.

Jim Forsythe

Rodney, one of the Doctors on TV addressed this. She said if the Hospitals need space for people to recover, they could use schools for this.

Schools and hotels would be used for overflow. This is important in parts of the USA that have very few hospitals that may come to this.

She also stated that we have never done this but we must be ready in case.

Karen Alberstadt

I went to HEB last week and, patrolling the checkout area, was an armed police officer with a german shepherd. I guess they were expecting trouble!

Jim Forsythe

Karen, some stores have already have had fistfights and conflicts with customers. Both were in our area. You can expect more problems if this escalates to more of us not being unable to go places, except for grocery stores and not much anything else. Stress will make some people do things that they normally would not.

Carlos Ponce

Remember not to buy Imperial Margarine. In commercials, people got a crown (corona in Spanish) upon eating the spread. [wink]

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