Restocking toilet paper coronavirus

Lisa Martinez, store manager of family dollar restocks toilet paper. [Photo by Murice Miller/Moab Sun News]

This story was updated 3/18 at 5:00 p.m.

Grocery stores across the country have been impacted by a surge in food shopping as the public responds to news about the novel coronavirus pandemic and Centers for Disease Control recommendations that families keep a two-week supply of household necessities to prepare for the possibility of home quarantine.

“Consider a 2-week supply of prescription and over the counter medications, food and other essentials,” reads a CDC website on how to prepare for the virus.

Stores in Moab are doing their best to keep up with the high demand.

“Normally, we have this many people in the store, but they’re buying small amounts,” said Brendon Cameron, manager of City Market. Now, he says, customers are filling their carts; products like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and non-perishable foods are being bought off the shelves faster than staff can restock them.

To mitigate the impact, City Market has reduced its operating hours and is asking customers to limit the purchase of any barcoded product to three per customer. The store will now be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

“This will allow for our awesome team to get some rest, as well as allowing our night stockers to complete their tasks,” explains a message posted in the store announcing the change in hours.

City Market is also limiting the purchase of the following items to one per customer: cold & flu remedies, analgesics, liquid hand soap, vitamins, hand sanitizers, household cleaners, bath tissue, baby diapers, baby food, cases of water and water by the gallon.

In addition, City Market employees are sanitizing commonly touched surfaces throughout the store, as well as store restrooms, every hour.

Village Market policies

Similar practices are happening at Village Market, Moab’s other large grocery. Village Market Manager David, who asked that his last name not be used, said his employees are also sanitizing the store with greater frequency, and that the store is “significantly busier” than usual. Village Market is also limiting the purchase of certain items on a rolling basis, depending on what delivery trucks are able to bring. David said that normally, one truck might deliver supplies to 3 or 4 locations. With shoppers stocking up on more items, stores are ordering full truck loads, maxing out the capacity of delivery companies, who have a limited number of trucks and drivers.

Updated lists of which items are restricted are posted in the store. Village Market is maintaining regular hours, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Keeping groceries and workers

So far, both managers say their supply chain and delivery schedule is unchanged; empty shelves late in the day are the result of an increase in shopping, not a shortage in supply. Both store managers say they would like to hire more employees, not just to cope with reactions to the pandemic, but in preparation for the tourist season. David said they are seeing the same number of people in the store as usual; he can’t say whether that’s the result of normal tourism numbers, or that more locals are staying home from work.

“If the tourists slow down, we may not need to hire anybody,” David said.

Cameron said that Kroger, City Market’s parent company, has a back-up hiring program. If a particular location is experiencing staffing problems and isn’t able to hire locally, they can send temporary Kroger staff members from other locations to help manage demand.

David said that one staffing strategy that Village Market and other retailers in town use is to hire foreign employees working in the United States under J-1 visas. However, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has temporarily paused programs that involve travel between the U.S. and a long list of countries considered to have some risk of spreading the novel coronavirus. The suspension is scheduled to last for 60 days, beginning on Mar. 12, and will be reevaluated at 30-day intervals thereafter.

In lieu of hiring more staff Cameron said that at City Market, current employees are working extra shifts. Six staff members have been brought on for extra time just to implement the new cleaning regimen.

“We are hiring and would like to hire more folks,” Cameron said. “We have great benefits, we have sick leave with pay.”

Moonflower Market works with local suppliers

Derek Whitworth, manager of local food coop Moonflower Market, said they have actually seen more applicants for jobs than usual in recent days. He attributes this to the population of outdoor guides and other seasonal workers who fear they may have a slow season because of the pandemic. Right now, he said he is focusing on taking care of current employees, making sure they have enough hours of work and that anyone who feels sick is able to stay home. Some employees are full-time and entitled to paid sick leave; part-time workers may not have paid sick time, but Whitworth said the store will “definitely take care of our employees.”

Whitworth said Moonflower has, like the other stores, been unusually busy. “This past week was the busiest we’ve ever had,” he said. Most of the increased traffic has been shoppers who have a membership at the coop, suggesting that there are more residents than tourists frequenting the store.

Moonflower, also like other stores, has implemented robust cleaning practices. They have hand sanitizer available for shoppers and employees at the front of the store.

“Luckily we got some of that before it all ran out,” said Whitworth, referring to the widespread shortage of hand sanitizer products due to high demand. Employees clean store surfaces with bleach Moonflower each night, as well as throughout the day. Self-serve bakery items and items at the hot bar are now individually wrapped; hot coffee, kombucha on tap, and hot soups are not currently being served. Moonflower also asks that customers refrain from bringing their own containers for bulk items, and instead opt for fresh containers from the store for the time being.

Earlier this week, Moonflower took the dramatic step of allowing only ten customers in the store at a time, to comply with Health Department recommendations that people avoid gathering in groups of more than ten.

“We apologize for the inconvenience but are looking out for the greater good!” said an update on the store’s Facebook page.

Moonflower has also reduced its hours to allow more time for staff to clean and stock. It will operate from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

“Our supplier is getting hit super hard,” Whitworth said, adding that supply companies have had to decrease the orders of some retailers in order to keep things fair. Whitworth pointed out that larger stores have the ability to stockpile goods, while a small store like Moonflower doesn’t have that capacity. However, the impact has been manageable.

“So far, so good,” Whitworth said of their supply chain. “Today we’ve received everything we ordered,” he said, speaking on Monday, Mar. 16.

Moonflower also partners with local suppliers like Castle Valley Farms and Early Morning Orchard. Castle Valley Farms was able to fulfill a request for more bags of mixed salad greens for the coop.

“This time of year, all those greens are popping,” said Whitworth.

Shopping options to limit infection risk

For individuals who are at higher risk of a severe infection, including those over the age of 60 and those with severe pre-existing medical conditions, the CDC recommends staying home as much as possible and avoiding crowds. City Market partners with Instacart to provide a pick-up program that allows customers to order their groceries online, have a City Market employee collect the items, and then pick up their order at the store.

“We’ve also been maxed out on that,” said Cameron, explaining that the store only has the capacity to fill 42 orders per day. A community volunteer group is organizing to provide grocery shopping services to community members at a higher risk of severe infection.

Cameron said that though the current state of things has his staff stretched thin, he remains committed to serving the Moab community and he believes in Moab’s resilience.

“We’ll be fine, our supply chain will be fine,” he said. “People are nervous about what’s going on right now, but as for our team, we’ll continue to try to fill the shelves for them. We’re here for the Moab community.”

Moonflower does not have an organized ordering service, but they have received many offers from customers who want to help their neighbors.

“We are coordinating volunteers to shop for the elderly and those who are unable to make it in to the store,” read a Mar. 18 Moonflower Facebook post.

Whitworth encouraged people to take proactive steps to care for their wellbeing by—not only for the direct benefit to their health, but for the feeling of empowerment it can produce.

“Taking action to be healthy, taking the fight to the situation, makes people feel a lot better, he said. “It gives you the good feeling of taking action.”