Early Birds Get the TP

Pandemic Panic Means Getting Up Early to Beat the Crowd

An empty toilet paper shelf at Trader Joe's | Credit: Jean Yamamura

“We counted a thousand people waiting this morning,” a Costco employee said as he paused while wheeling a hand truck past racks that were emptied of the toilet paper and bottled water they’d held at 9:30 that morning. At Smart & Final, which opens at 6 a.m., toilet paper was gone by eight o’clock.

“The doors open at eight,” said a Trader Joe’s manager, “and it’s first come, first served.” Buying for the store was automated now, he added, and they just put out what they’re sent. There, too, toilet paper shelves were vacant, as were breads, and some canned and frozen goods.

At Ralph’s, cashiers rang customers through and employees scattered throughout the store, jumping in to help restock goods and produce when they could. Signs taped to empty water and paper-product shelves announced limits on what people could buy.  

Photo: Jean YamamuraSigns taped to empty shelves at Costco announced limits on what people could buy.

“The trucks come every day,” said an employee monitoring the registers as a line of customers waited their turn down Aisle 4. “We just don’t have enough hands to put everything out.”

With 327 million people in the U.S. and 1,600 cases of coronavirus, Santa Barbarans are reading the writing on the wall: It’s time to hunker down. Well versed in emergency measures from past fires and flood, shoppers know what they need and proactively go and get it.

Triggering the panic were the emergency declarations issued by California and local officials after increasing numbers of community cases made it clear that control was slipping from their grasp. Warnings in past weeks that social distancing fiats were on their way culminated on Thursday evening with the announcement of a local health emergency. Santa Barbara County had zero confirmed cases of COVID-19, six people had tested negative, and nine people were under a just-in-case quarantine, health officials announced. But gatherings of more than 250 were banned, smaller ones should allow two arms’ lengths between participants, and events that include those with vulnerable health should be limited to 10 people.

Iconic events large and small — from Earth Day and the Vintner’s Fest to the weekly Society of Fearless Grandmothers protests — are canceled or postponed, and small businesses are hurting as they had after the debris flow.

The emergency Santa Barbarans are used to preparing for is the one that shuts off the electricity and closes the roads for days or weeks — giant earthquakes, fires, and floods. A disease no one has immunity to is new and frightening but apparently survivable.

City and county water officials assured the Independent that the taps would continue to produce clean water even amid a coronavirus outbreak. Roads will stay open, and the electricity will stay on. Medical masks are mostly made in China, which puts them in short supply, but paper products like disinfectant wipes, paper towels, and toilet paper are made in the U.S., often in the wood mills of the Pacific Northwest.

In Italy, a country whose officials have shut down all 20 regions because of a fast-spreading COVID-19 epidemic, grocery stores are considered essential; they and pharmacies are some of the few places allowed to stay open. Shops, however, are suffering.

Photo: Jean YamamuraProduce shelf picked clean at Trader Joe’s

Likewise, small businesses in Santa Barbara again face a season of bank or federal loans, layoffs, or borrowing from friends and family to keep the doors open. Marlene Bucy, the owner of folio press & paperie, is not looking forward to a repeat of the Thomas Fire, only this time it’s an event that “affects all humans on earth,” she said. The wholesale letterpress card business she and her husband, Frank Bucy, run will likely be affected by the economic effects around the country, she worried.

“Do your best to not spread germs, and above all, not spread panic,” she wrote in an email to customers. “Our amazing retail team have been persistently wiping down and sanitizing our small shop,” the email read, as Bucy suggested teaching kids at home how to write a letter on real stationery and offered telephone credit card sales.

Coffee shops are also asking customers not to forget them but to leave their personal cups at home. “Some customers, especially the ones who care about the environment, really didn’t like hearing that,” said a barista at one local coffeehouse. But lips, germs, and personal cups don’t make the cut these days.

Masks have been sold out at drug stores all week, but one hardware store in Goleta was selling single paper masks for $13 apiece. They’d cost $15 for 10 of them previously at CVS. An employee at Ace Hardware explained their wholesaler had increased prices, too, so they were selling them for a dollar over that price.

“California law generally prohibits charging a price that exceeds, by more than 10 percent, the price of an item before a state or local declaration of emergency,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office replied to an inquiry. “We encourage all Californians to report potential price gouging to our office through the website or calling (800) 952-5225, or to contact their local law enforcement.”

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