Ontario government urges calm as shoppers empty store shelves

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The Ontario government is urging shoppers to remain calm and stop hoarding after reports of consumers depleting toilet paper, Lysol wipes, canned foods, flour and fresh meat from grocery retailers.

The statement came as provincial public health officials said on Saturday that the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 was 103. Five of those patients are no longer infectious.

“The health and well-being of the people of Ontario is our government’s number one priority,” health minister Christine Elliott and agriculture minister Ernie Hardeman said in the joint statement.

“Ontarians can be confident that our food supply is robust and that our distribution system will continue to operate and remain responsive to the needs of Ontarians. Rest assured, we have plenty of food that will continue to reach grocery stores on a regular basis.”

There have also been reports of panic buying around the world in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the crowds in Toronto may have already dissipated.

On Saturday, the Leslie and Lakeshore Loblaws was fairly quiet only two days after the checkout line wrapped around half the store’s perimeter and a day after three employees were tasked with directing checkout traffic.

“Most consumers have been buying what we would call essential products,” says Diane J. Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada. She says hygiene products, cleaning supplies, staple foods, canned goods and dried goods are the items flying off shelves.

Online retail giant Amazon has cracked down on people reselling sanitary products at inflated prices not unlike a Vancouver couple who, according to the Toronto Star, stocked up on Lysol cleaning products from Costco.

When NOW visited the Loblaws at Leslie and Lakeshore on Saturday, there were empty meat bunkers, depleted non-perishable goods like pasta and canned soup and no toilet paper.

The chain introduced a two-per customer limit on toilet paper and paper towel packages with a points incentive on March 13 to prevent hoarding. That didn’t keep the product from disappearing. I watched customers grabbing toilet paper straight off a pallet being used to restock shelves.

“I don’t know why people need a six month toilet paper supply,” says shopper Michael Holder, who expressed amazement at the barren shelves.

One woman, who asked not to be identified, purchased toilet paper not because she needed it but because everybody else was buying it. “Just in case,” she said.

The panic buying seemed to create a domino effect: Customers intending to pick up regular groceries see long lines and empty shelves and feel pressured to stock up as a precaution or to avoid having to stand in a long line at some point in the future.

“Consumers are misinterpreting the empty shelves,” says Brisebois. “They think those products are no longer available. The supply chain is very healthy. The challenge that retailers are having is that some of those products are being sold so quickly. They’re trying to re-adjust their delivery times to replenish those shelves.

“The only product where there’s a short supply is the hand sanitizers,” says Brisebois. “But we’re seeing it reappear in stores. You don’t need to hoard.”

While meat supplies were almost sold out at the Leslie Loblaws on Saturday, the nearby Fu Yao supermarket in Chinatown East had fully stocked shelves.

Asian restaurants and grocery stores have taken a hit since Toronto’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in January.

Most Loblaws customers I spoke to were calmly shopping for items they need in the short term, with only a few stocking up for two weeks. One woman, who asked not to be identified, had a shopping cart overflowing with various items. She had recently returned from a vacation in Mexico and was going into a two-week self-isolation along with her husband and child.

“I actually don’t know what two weeks of food even looks like,” she said, adding that she was shopping for both her own family as well as her parents, who are over 65-years-old and more vulnerable to COVID-19. She had initially tried to purchase groceries online through both Grocery Gateway and Loblaws.

“All the sites crashed,” she said. The Grocery Gateway site remained down due to spiked traffic as of pressed time.

On March 13, a violent incident occurred at the Loblaws store at Portland and Queen West amid panic buying. A man brandishing a gun was arrested after getting into a fight at that store.

“In circumstances like this, there will always be isolated incidents, which are unfortunate,” says Brisebois. “But the great majority of consumers have been extremely supportive.

“I’ve heard of an incident where a customer was becoming belligerent towards a sales associate and other customers came to her defence and asked that people remain calm and be civil and polite. Generally, that’s what we’re seeing with Ontarians and Canadians. And it’s a quality that we great appreciate under these circumstances.

“These are challenging times economically and health wise,” Brisebois adds. “We expect people to sometimes react differently. I was pleased in a conference call with over a hundred retailers who were also sharing beautiful moments where people were saying, ‘lets be decent.’”

Public health officials say the risk remains low for Canadians. To prevent and slow the virus from spreading, experts are urging people to wash their hands frequently, cough into their sleeves and stay home if they experience symptoms.

Provincial health officials have also advised Ontarians to practice social distancing to help stop the spread. Many events and tourist sites have been cancelled, postponed or closed as a result.

On Friday, Toronto closed libraries, daycares and community centres in order to slow the rate of COVID-19 infection.

@justsayrad