The risk of coronavirus remains low in Alaska, but empty Anchorage store shelves reveal rising anxiety

The hand sanitizer bin at Fred Meyer in Midtown Anchorage sits empty on March 4, 2020. The store was sold out of sanitizer, as were many stores in Anchorage, over concerns about the coronavirus. (Julia O’Malley/Alaska Public Media)

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Although she lives in Wasilla, Ann Williams was on a city-wide tour of Anchorage stores Wednesday, looking for one very specific thing: hand sanitizer.

“We’ve been to all of ’em, including the restaurant supplies. We were at Costco yesterday, they’re completely cleaned out. People are panic buying. Everything: water, paper towel, everything. We’ve been to all the Walgreens, all the Fred Meyers. Just everybody’s out,” she said.

California reported its first coronavirus death Wednesday. Washington reported its tenth. There are no confirmed cases in Alaska, but in stores across Anchorage, toilet paper, water, rice and cold medicine were flying off of shelves, evidence of growing anxiety about what might happen next.

Related: The state has tested 4 people for coronavirus, 2 tests are pending, testing approach is “phased,” medical officer says

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is still considered low for most of the American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to the coronavirus. While people in communities where the virus is spreading face elevated risk, it’s still “relatively low,” the CDC said, and serious illness appears to occur in about 15 percent of cases.

Store owners in Anchorage have been limiting sales of certain things and public health officials are struggling to get the message out that it’s practical to have two weeks of supplies on hand, but there is no need to stockpile.

“I hate to use the term hoarding,” said Audrey Gray, an emergency programs manager for the Municipality of Anchorage. “If you want to get a couple extra hand sanitizers, I think that’s great. Understand you’re part of a collective, though. And maybe you buy two extra, but maybe not 10 extra.”

Sanitizing wipes were nearly sold out at Fred Meyer in Midtown Anchorage Wednesday as shoppers stocked up over concerns about coronavirus. (Julia O’Malley/ Alaska Public Media)

There is no worry at this point about supply lines, she said, and the city is not coordinating with local retailers on supplies. According to Gray, that’s largely because the problem isn’t about supply, it’s about individuals overbuying.

Read our continuing coverage of coronavirus in Alaska

As she hunted for hand sanitizer, Williams said she had considered ordering online, but was shocked by the “price gouging” she saw.

“We looked on Amazon Prime, we were going to order some, and they had like three 8oz bottles anywhere between $44 and $99 for three-packs. I mean that’s just ridiculous.”

In the parking lot at Fred Meyer in Midtown Anchorage, shoppers pushed carts piled high with toilet paper, rice, and cases of water. Inside, a sign posted on the self check-out read: “Due to high demand and to support all customers, we will be limiting the number of Sanitation, Cold and Flu related products to 5 each per customer.” A weary clerk kept an eye on people’s carts, asking those who had taken too much DayQuil or bleach wipes to put some back.

A note was posted on the self-check out at Fred Meyer, warning people not to purchase more than their share of cleaning or cold and flu products in Midtown Anchorage on Wednesday, March 4. (Julia O’Malley/Alaska Public Media)

Shirley Saucerman, a nutritional psychiatrist who works with elderly patients, was squinting into the Fred Meyer first aid section Wednesday morning, looking for a thermometer, but with no luck. She’d already given up on finding hand sanatizer on this shopping trip, so she’d picked up a bottle of rubbing alcohol.

She said she’d noticed a shift in behavior among shoppers earlier in week.

“I was at Costco the other day where people were stocking up on lots of things,” she said. “Many things at Costco were down.”

Bob Ripley manages the Dimond Boulevard Costco. The store has imposed limits on some products, capping how many an individual can buy at a time. But according to Ripley, in most cases what’s happening is about supply management, not supply shortage.

“We’re trying to take care of as many people as we can, and not just the people that are out ahead of it and over-purchasing. That’s what I’m seeing more than anything else, is just people grossly over-purchasing,” he said.

There is a definite rush, Ripley says. But it has been within the range of what the store regularly handles.

“It was, I wouldn’t say pre-Christmas levels, but it was definitely–the last three days, today included, we’ve seen a definite uptick in foot traffic,” he said.

Bottled water was running low at Walmart in Midtown Anchorage, as customers purchased staples amid fear of the coronavirus on March 4, 2020. (Julia O’Malley/Alaska Public Media)

And he says, in spite of putting limits on items like bulk rice and bottled water, some things are just flat-out gone.

“Specifically for coronavirus is the cleaning supplies and surface wipes, we’re out of surface wipes.”

At Walmart in Midtown Anchorage Wednesday, there was not a pocket hand sanitizer or face mask to be had. The store’s cold medicine section was mostly empty. Only a half dozen canisters of sanitizing wipes were left on a long, empty shelf.

Margarita Alvarado stood on her tippy-toes in the soap aisle, trying to reach a last lonely bottle of anti-bacterial soap. She said she heard about the coronavirus at the end of December, but was more worried now because of the relentless news. She had two cases of water in her cart.

“Water and soap and tuna and everything for saving in my house,” she said.

She lives with her daughter and grandson, she said. Her daughter works at Providence and she’s worried she’ll be exposed to the disease. She’s been praying for her, she said.

“It’s scary, the coronavirus, it’s scary,” she said.

Reporter Zachariah Hughes in Anchorage contributed to this story.

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