Grocery stores in much of the Bay Area must reduce the number of shoppers they allow inside a store starting Monday under new stay-at-home orders announced on Friday.
San Francisco, Santa Clara, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda counties are enacting the orders as a preemption to a new state stay-at-home order, which could take effect across the rest of the Bay Area in mid-December.
The orders require grocery stores to reduce capacity to 20% from 50%. They also bar eating and drinking in stores and require special hours to be available for seniors and others who are particularly vulnerable to the virus — something many stores have already done.
Many people cannot afford grocery delivery, and it’s conceivable that the new rules — combined with the surge and the approaching holidays — could help spur more panic buying, according to Phil Lampert, a food industry expert and editor of Supermarket Guru.
“There’s no question that we’ll see (panic buying) again,” Lampert said. “But this time it won’t be mostly because of people flocking to stores — we may see hoarding through online orders which contribute to empty store shelves.”
Some stores have already been keeping capacity below the current 50% limit — including in Santa Clara County, where health orders issued last weekend allow grocery stores to be only 25% full at a time.
In the East Bay, Berkeley Bowl’s two stores have already been operating well below the state’s capacity threshold out of caution, according to general manager Steve Tsujimoto. The line to get in can take 5 to 20 minutes, depending on demand.
“It won’t be hard to get to 20% since we’re already at 25%,” he said.
The store has stocked up in case of panic buying of essentials.
“We’ve learned valuable lessons from last time,” Tsujimoto said, referring to the early, frenzied days of the pandemic. “We acted proactively and have been warehousing certain select items — toilet paper, sanitizers, wipes, beans, rice, grains, flour, bread — things of that nature.”
Rainbow Grocery and Bi-Rite in San Francisco and Piedmont Grocery in Oakland have already been capping customers at 20% for months, for the same reason: extra safety. The stores limit the number of shoppers inside, require masks and social distancing and offer hand sanitizer stations. All have found more suppliers and stocked up after the first round of panic buying in March left shelves bereft of toilet paper, cleaning supplies and food staples.
“Panic buying may be a reaction (to the state health order), but I don’t think it’ll happen like it did in March,” said Cody Frost, marketing coordinator at Rainbow Grocery. Though he said it’s unlikely shelves will be empty, he added the store is considering product limits to discourage hoarding.
Sarah Holt, director of marketing and community for Bi-Rite, said that the store expects online sales to “spike again.” It’s prepared for more delivery orders, “and the accuracy of orders should improve since it’s now Bi-Rite staff doing much of the shopping for guest orders.” The company has also expanded its prepared food section.
Costco and Safeway did not respond to questions about how the health orders would affect them.
Lampert of Supermarket Guru said grocers should think of delivery and curbside pickup need as more permanent options, rather than as temporary solutions.
The overall food supply is healthy, he said, but packaging and transportation may be impacted due to labor shortages as essential workers face higher risks of contracting the virus. And on the consumer side, hoarding is fueled by fear.
“Americans’ stress level has been high for months,” Lampert said. “People are nervous, they want to make sure they can feed their families and they’re worried about their jobs in times of uncertainty. With grocery shopping, they still have some sense of control.”
The uncertainty around the surge is a factor.
“If this peak is much worse, then we will discover new bottlenecks,” said Karan Girotra, a professor of operations and technology and an expert in supply chain management at Cornell Tech in New York City. “The big caveat/unknown, though, still is how much worse this peak will be in terms of COVID spread and infection rates than what we saw in the spring.”
Nationwide, some extra buying has already started. Grocery shopping service Instacart, which many customers use to avoid braving supermarket aisles themselves, reported double-digit increases in demand nationwide for some disinfectants and over-the-counter medications in recent weeks.
Battery sales, for instance, jumped 37% over the past four weeks, compared to the prior four weeks, Instacart said. Likewise diaper sales were up 28%, isopropyl alcohol sales were up 20% and Pine-Sol sales were up 10%. Demand for some medications rose in the same time period, with sleep aids up 44% and pain and fever relievers up 33%.
At the same time, Instacart said it’s seen more than a dozen retailers institute caps on some items, such as household and cleaning essentials, canned vegetables, flour, frozen foods and baby formula — the same items retailers limited when the pandemic started in March and April.
The San Francisco company said it is ready to handle any new increases.
“We’re operating at a different scale than we were at the start of the year, and as a result of the adjustments we’ve made and fine-tuned over the past nine months, we’re well positioned to safely and effectively meet any rising demand associated with a COVID-19 winter wave,” Instacart said in a statement.