Empty Shelves Greet Chicagoans Stocking Up For Coronavirus

Store Shelves
Linda Lutton / WBEZ
Store Shelves
Linda Lutton / WBEZ

Empty Shelves Greet Chicagoans Stocking Up For Coronavirus

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Cindy Brown is a greeter at Sam’s Club in Cicero, and on Thursday night, she stood at the store entrance and welcomed repeated waves of customers with this greeting: “There’s no water, no paper towels, no tissue, no disinfectant wipes or spray, or bleach. There’s about a 30-minute wait in line … Come on in, welcome to Sam’s.”

Her warnings did nothing to stop a wide river of customers pushing carts into the store, many hoping to stock up for potential homestays due to coronavirus.

“They just think it’s going to be the end of the world tomorrow,” marveled Brown, who said the lines seemed even longer than those that form on Black Friday. Carts were packed with the apocalypse-sized packages of chili beans and Gatorade.

Store Shelves
Sam’s Club employee Cindy Brown greets customers Thursday evening at the Cicero store by telling them there is no water, no paper towels, no tissue, no disinfectant wipes or spray. Linda Lutton / WBEZ

Empty shelves and crowded grocery aisles are perhaps the first widely felt impact of the coronavirus on everyday Chicagoans.Other impacts are coming: All K-12 schools in the state will be closed beginning Tuesday, universities are figuring out how to adapt to virtual classes and many employees have been told to work from home.

Toward the back of the Sam’s Club, dozens of disappointed customers simply abandoned their carts in the area where bottled water and toilet tissue should have been. There wasn’t a stray bottle of water in sight.

“Is this real?” wondered Cicero resident Gregory Hunt, surveying the scene. “This looks like a cyclone has been through here.”

Hunt had come to the store in the morning and found pallets of goods; now, returning to pick up a prescription, an entire area was cleared out.

“This virus has got everybody in an uproar and scared, and you should be,” said Hunt. “Because we don’t know how long this is going to last.”

Hunt was doing his shopping from a motorized cart. “I have 10 cases of water at home, and I don’t think that’s enough.” Hunt said, “I’m handicapped. I can’t run to the store like everyone else.”

Watch the news or search social media for the hashtag “panicbuying,” and you’ll see empty shelves worldwide. It’s led many to appeal for calm. Don’t hoard, they say. Leave some toilet paper for others.

The Illinois Attorney General’s office is monitoring price-gouging and other potential areas of consumer fraud surrounding coronavirus. The office says it has received several complaints around price gouging for face masks and disinfectants. Consumers can file complaints through their website.

Next door to the Sam’s Club, the reality Friday morning was that dozens of customers were waiting in the Target parking lot for the store to open.

Rebecca Lopez was among them, hoping to pick up some household cleaning products and yes — toilet paper. She wasn’t only there for Lysol though. “Actually I’m going to buy a Monopoly game so we can play games at home with the kids,” she said.

Her children’s schools were in session, but she decided to keep them home. “I’m not taking those chances right now,” Lopez said. “It’s just being cautious…. We’re going to limit our social interactions with people.”

When the store opened at 8 a.m., the toilet paper never touched the shelves. An employee cut open recently arrived boxes and handed packs to customers, who had formed a neat line down the aisle.

Another Target employee told a customer looking for hand sanitizer that Purell hand sanitizer had been sold out for weeks. (In fact, it’s hard to find any hand sanitizer for sale anywhere. Luckily, the CDC recommends regular old hand washing as the principal protection against contracting COVID-19, and recipes for homemade hand sanitizer abound.)

Mariano’s and Jewel Osco, two of the Chicago area’s biggest grocery store chains, have been tight-lipped about what products they are out of. Both say they’ve put limits on how much customers can buy of certain items. And they say they’re replenishing products as quickly as the supply chain allows.

Big stores are not the only ones having trouble staying stocked.

At the small but mighty A&A Dollar Plus on 26th Street in Little Village, Amer Zahra says his father, the owner, is having trouble getting hand sanitizer and even water.

“We’re having trouble getting quantities,” Zahra said. “We got two pallets [of bottled water], and we finished them in two hours.”

Zahra said they did not even bother bringing them into the store. “People saw this truck open with water, kept on stopping and get as much water as they can. We obviously have a limit too — like one or two per customer — that’s a max,” said Zahra.

Amer’s father, owner Muhammad Zahra, said all the panic can create its own problems.

“The people should not be scared,” said the elder Zahra. Panic is contagious, he said. “The worry is making a scary situation. We should control ourself. Be patient, that’s it,” he said.

In the crowded Sam’s Club parking lot Thursday evening, most people seemed to be rolling with things. The Echeverria family, for instance, had come for water, but they did settle on an alternative — five cases of Modelo beer.

For a family event, Mayra Echeverria quickly explained. “We’ve got to hydrate some way!” she laughed.