Panicked Shoppers Empty Shelves as Coronavirus Anxiety Rises

A day after New York officials declared a state of emergency, hordes of shoppers flooded stores and emptied shelves, looking to stockpile groceries and household items to prepare for the unknown.

Stores were overwhelmed with long lines of customers waiting just to enter what would be a space of packed aisles and backed-up checkout lanes.

Inside the Target at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, customers snatched up hand soap, lotion, detergent, vitamins and paper products. Cold and flu medicines were completely sold out.

Soon after the 9 a.m. opening at the Trader Joe’s in Hoboken, N.J., a line of nervous customers stretched along the block in the rain, waiting to pick through the mostly bare shelves inside. There was no chicken available, nor garbanzo beans, coffee or chips. The store is restocking regularly, but many of its registers are unstaffed.

In a Duane Reade store in Manhattan, there was little evidence of an overnight delivery of isopropyl alcohol and antiseptic wipes, most of it bought in the early morning. A nearby Duane Reade was attempting to refill its stock of toilet paper after its lot was sold out.

Grim-faced shoppers at a Key Food in the Windsor Terrace area of Brooklyn were met with shelves devoid of rice, bread and chicken. A manager sought to be a voice of calm. “The truck’s outside,” he said. “The truck’s outside.”

Once an undertaking reserved for the arrival of hurricanes and snowstorms, the frantic pursuit of groceries and household goods has been pushed to a more intense level in the age of the new coronavirus, as urgency and fear propel people down the aisles. Panic shopping now comes with a much more dire and ominous tone; it’s unclear what and how much one should buy in response to a pandemic.

It’s unknown territory without a guidebook, but the physical act of snatching up bundles of toilet paper, aspirin and canned goods can feel like reassurance.

But it’s also a testament of will and stamina to brave the lines just to enter a store, or even a parking lot. Those who tried online shopping unsuccessfully arrive to find their go-to products wiped from the shelves.

In Brooklyn, Jason Krigsfeld, 31, and his wife were relieved to find a 20-pack of Charmin toilet paper, the last one on the shelf at Target. They tossed it into the cart they had brought from home that already held hand soap, laundry detergent and floor cleaner. Then they went on the search for ibuprofen and pasta.

“It escalated exponentially the last few days,” said Mr. Krigsfeld, who works in software. “We saw people emergency shopping yesterday and were like, ‘We need to do that, too.’”

Luchy Almonte of the South Bronx said she started stocking up last week on foods including rice and beans, and cough medicines. But the news that two neighborhood high schools were closing heightened her worries. She had just purchased two five-gallon jugs of water from her local grocery store. Next on her list: toilet paper.

Luis Portes, a professor of economics at Montclair State University in New Jersey, said “panic shopping” was just a part of the first phase of the economic disruptions we can expect to see from the virus.

“The lights are going out slowly on Broadway, in sports stadiums, in museums,” Professor Portes said. “That is feeding into the psychological aspect playing out hour by hour, and day by day. But the larger economic impact will be played out in weeks or months.”

Reporting was contributed by Elaine Chen, William Rashbaum, Nate Schweber and Michael Wilson in New York; Tiffany Hsu in Hoboken, N.J.; and Tracey Tully in Union, N.J.

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