The Safeway store at Pleasant Valley Avenue in Oakland on Friday at 9 a.m. was thronged with panic buyers and would-be panic buyers. I had intended to be one of them. Having heard a colleague’s tale about the crazy scene that he’d encountered at the Richmond Costco the day before, I thought it might make sense to stock up on toilet paper on the way to work.
Half of Rockridge and Piedmont had apparently come to the same conclusion.
The vast parking lot, which accommodates more than 200 cars, was completely full, and the good-sized rooftop lot was quickly approaching capacity. A huge line of shoppers toting baskets snaked to the right of the store’s corral of about seven self-service registers. Aisles dedicated to cleaning products or food staples were crowded with shoppers pushing overstuffed carts filled with cleaning products, foodstuffs, and three, four, even five packets of toilet paper. The store’s large array of cash registers was thronged with lines of shopping carts 20 and 30 people long.
And they were all
STANDING ALONGSIDE one another,
BREATHING ON one another,
INHALING AIR THAT OTHER PEOPLE HAD JUST EXHALED,
with a crowd of anxious people.
If you wanted to design a form of social interaction guaranteed to transmit diseases among a crowd, you would be hard pressed to find a better way to do so. It may have been the scariest thing I’ve ever witnessed. After walking around in a fog for a couple minutes, I eventually fled the scene in terror.
On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom wisely ordered the statewide cancellation of events attracting more than 250 people. At the time, we all envisioned that ban as applying to concerts, or film festivals, or tech conferences, or NBA basketball games.
But it should also apply to grocery stores and the like.
Why was everyone at Safeway on a Friday morning at 9 a.m. when must of us probably should have been at work? Because we’d heard that other people have been panic buying, and we were afraid that if we too did not do so, we might run out of basic staples, such as soap, sanitizer, bulk foods, and, of course, toilet paper.
Panic buying begets panic buying. Not only does it increase the likelihood that some of us might actually run out of necessary staples when we actually need them most, but it also encourages people to mob retailers and stand close together in tightly packed germ-sharing clusters.
The governor needs to issue emergency rules barring such panic buying. Institute mandatory limits on the number of basic staples that can be sold to one person at one time. Urge retailers to minimize crowding and impose limits on the number of people who can enter their facilities at a single time.
Would that be legal? I have no idea whatsoever. But it would damn sure be prudent. The largest, most dangerous crowds to be found in the East Bay today will probably all be near the checkout lines of retailers.
Retailers should do the same thing if they have any concern whatsoever for the health of their employees. The poor besieged workers at my neighborhood Safeway were being put at risk Friday morning.
Please don’t hoard the Charmin. Panicking will only make matters worse.