Michael Suguitan/Sun Staff Photographer

Wegmans customers have been stocking up on food items with longer shelf lives, including instant noodles.

March 11, 2020

As Outbreak Worsens, Rush to Prepare Leaves Ithaca Store Shelves Empty

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Nationwide, big box and local convenience stores alike have seen their shelves emptied by shoppers preparing for the prospect of a prolonged epidemic.

Although Tompkins County has yet to confirm a case of the coronavirus, those trends have been mirrored in Ithaca — where normally abundant staples like hand sanitizer have become hard-sought commodities.

For instance, College Avenue’s 7/11, a commonly frequented chain among Cornell students, reported running out of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, with no clear timetable for their return.

According to Adwin Carrero, manager of the Collegetown shop, “I think everyone’s alarmed and buying them out.” While the store has placed orders to re-stock, there’s still uncertainty over “how the product orders are set,” he told The Sun.

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 grow rapidly nationwide, so too have shortages of products designed to help fight the spread of the disease. As a result of the sudden spike in demand, shoppers in New York City have reportedly found bottles of Purell listed for almost $80 — if they can find them at all.

Wegmans Food Market, which operates one of Ithaca’s largest grocery stores, directed The Sun to a March 10 statement, where it acknowledged that customers “are stocking up on paper products and a variety of food items, particularly those with a longer shelf life.”

In addition to hand sanitizer and wipes, stores across the country have also reported running out of basic household items, like toilet paper and bottled water, as fears of potential lockdowns and protracted crisis swell.

As a result, Wegmans — like a number of other retailers — has begun rationing certain products, limiting purchases of certain items to one to three per customer, depending on the item. For instance, Wegmans shoppers will now only be able to purchase only one pack of bath tissue per trip.

With coronavirus shopping trends “mimicking what we see leading up to a weather event,” Wegmans’ statement read, the chain said that it has committed to “increasing orders based on demand to meet the needs of our employees and customers.”

Walmart’s Ithaca Supercenter also echoed the experience of Wegmans, writing in a Tuesday statement that paper products, cleaning supplies and other items have been in high demand. The store encouraged shoppers to consider online delivery as a means to limit contact among large groups of people.

But even as events, transportation and colleges face cancellations nationwide, Ithaca’s stores remained committed to servicing the area’s community.

Since warnings of a potential outbreak had first begun, Carrero and his employees have taken precautions such as swabbing counters and disinfecting areas that were often exposed to customers’ hands, like the store’s trademark slurpee bar and condiments section.

Planning to continue these measures indefinitely, Carreo hopes to face future uncertainty with a brave face: “We’re going to see how this whole situation goes,” he told The Sun. “We’re going to be open until we are forced to decide otherwise.”

Likewise, Wegmans said that the supermarket is continuing to follow their “strict food safety policies and procedures” by going “above and beyond what is required,” such as adding additional hand sanitizer stations and increasing the frequency of store cleanings.

Walmart also encouraged sick employees to stay home, while also saying that it would revisit the company’s signature 24/7 store hours policy in an effort to accommodate additional, overnight disinfectant efforts.

But Universal Deli-Grocery, another Collegetown staple, has seen a different experience. Mian Khalil, owner of the longtime convenience store, claimed that the reality of the virus has been exaggerated.

“I think people are overreacting,” he said. “People die every year from the flu, 20,000 this year. People are in Ithaca, it’s very safe.”

Still, Khalil said that his store was sold out of the “few bottles” of hand sanitizer it carries, noting that “it’s not just us — everyone is out.”

Liam Galey ’23 contributed reporting.