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food We Are All Irrational Panic Shoppers

On social media, shoppers across the country have been sharing pictures of grocery stores' denuded shelves and shopping baskets overflowing with random groceries.

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Costco diehards know that weekends are for amateurs. The true connoisseur of bulk condiments and discount televisions and multi-pack leggings avoids the choke of the Saturday-and-Sunday crowd, commandeering her oversized shopping cart only on weekdays, and especially on weekday mornings: the store opens its doors at nine, and it generally takes an hour of customer inflow for the winding aisles to reach a critical mass of mayhem. Being one of the first people inside Costco can be an oddly peaceful experience: the quiet hum of the refrigerator cases, the sweeping linoleum canyons with walls of neatly stacked inventory.

Panic, perhaps unsurprisingly, throws this rhythm into disarray. Fear of covid-19, the flu-like illness that has made its way from China to other cities around the world, including a growing number in the U.S., has sent many New Yorkers into crisis mode. Health authorities, including the C.D.C., have advised to prepare for a period of social distancing; based on transmission-prevention efforts in China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran, it seems possible that Americans in some cities will eventually face full-on quarantine. This involves certain elements of what emergency managers call “shelter in place,” and doomsday preppers refer to as “bugging in”: enough supplies for a household to remain isolated for at minimum a few days, and ideally a few weeks. Where better to get your fix of canned beans than a store where the cans are gallon-size?

At eight-forty-five on a recent Monday morning, fifteen minutes before Costco’s official opening time, the crowd waiting to get inside the warehouse in Brooklyn was already about a hundred strong. Bodies and carts were jammed together inside the store’s open vestibule, pressing up against the still-locked doors; outside, spilling into the parking lot and blocking the flow of traffic, nearly twice as many shoppers fanned out around the vestibule entrances, aiming their carts with the tense energy of bobsledders waiting for the starting gun. An employee pushing a pallet cart shouted for people to get off the asphalt and instead wrap around the building, which everyone ignored, so instead he called out to a co-worker standing closer to the front of the throng: “Tell them they’ve got to open the doors early!” The second employee snaked his way through the crowd to the doors. As he turned sideways to fit between two logjammed carts, he muttered, “This is a madhouse.”

Inside the store, chaos descended almost instantly. Just past the entrance, and then again by the escalators to the second floor, hundreds of shrink-wrapped five-packs of Clorox Disinfecting Wipes (“Kills 99.9% of Viruses & Bacteria!”) were stacked like battlements, the walls slowly eroding as shoppers threw them into their carts. There was a traffic jam near the medical-grade nitrile gloves—hundreds of boxes remained of the small and medium size, but the store’s stock of large gloves (which are sized to fit most men’s hands) were down to the last dozen. The antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer were long gone before any of us had set foot in the store that morning, cleaned out by the weekend hordes.

In the past week, shoppers across the country have been sharing pictures of Costco’s denuded shelves on social media, with captions simultaneously horrified and entertained: the store is premised on a fantasy of endless abundance, and there’s something intensely satisfying in finding the bottom of the allegedly bottomless pit. There’s an element of fantasy in the panic, as well. Apocalyptic bug-in plans require emergency stores of water, but staying home for a few weeks isn’t quite nuclear holocaust: why, then, were shoppers filling entire carts with cases upon cases of Poland Spring? (Curiously, those bottles seemed to be moving more swiftly than Costco’s less expensive, in-house Kirkland brand of water—a Giffen-good irrationality also present in the toilet-paper department, where a fortress of name-brand Scott rolls was dismantled by shoppers in the space of forty minutes while a far more imposing fortress of Kirkland Signature Bath Tissue barely had a dent.) In San Francisco, the puckish technology artist Danielle Baskin poked some fun at the panic shoppers, swapping the price signs for sold-out items at her local Costco with pixel-perfect parodies that skewer our inclination toward magical thinking: “DOWSING ROD, 13" INCH COPPER, SELL PRICE 12.99”; “SUMMONING ORB 2PK, SELL PRICE 24.99”; “DUE TO INCREASED DEMAND HEALTH POTIONS LIMITED TO 5 VIALS PER MEMBER.”

There’s an undeniable logic to bulk shopping in times of bulk need (or, at the very least, times of bulk panic-induced compulsion), but not everyone has a Costco membership. The same day I visited Costco, an appointment brought me to the Upper West Side, where I stopped by the Fairway on Seventy-fourth and Broadway. The store was day-before-Thanksgiving crowded: the first thing I saw when I stepped through the door was the tail end of a checkout line, one of three wending through the narrow aisles. The verdant jungle of the produce section was at stark odds with the dry goods and grocery shelves, which had been ravaged. All the beans, dried and canned, were completely gone; the dried pastas were well picked over, and what remained was in violent disarray. There was a closed-off squareness to people’s posture, a bulldozeriness to their gait—a clear transmission that no, sorry, we’re not actually all in this together, so you’d better back away slowly from the granola bars. (The mood probably wasn’t helped by the marquee for the Beacon Theatre, directly across the street from Fairway, promoting that night’s unfortunately timed rock show by flashing the words “Widespread Panic” in huge red letters.)

As more and more covid-19 cases are being confirmed in the United States (and as it becomes clear that the federal government’s ability to properly inform and protect the population is, at best, deeply flawed), health experts and epidemiologists are emphasizing that individual risk is quite low, as long as basic precautions are taken, and that those of us who are in general good health should refrain from hoarding masks and other resources that are more vital to those urgently in need of care. This is rational, well-considered advice; unfortunately, man is not a terribly rational creature. Fear is contagious: when we see people go out of their way to protect themselves from disaster, no matter how unlikely, we don’t want to be the only ones left undefended. The ultra-rich are ditching first class in order to fly private, where at least the germs are more rarefied; the D.I.Y.-minded are mixing rubbing alcohol with aloe gel to approximate the effects of hand sanitizer. In recent days, I’ve heard stories of friends and friends of friends making their own frantic grocery trips, walking in the door of Wegman’s or C-Town knowing intellectually that this kind of bunker mentality is unwarranted, it’s silly, it’s probably counterproductive—but coming home nevertheless with stacks of SpaghettiOs and canned green beans, or filling their freezers with Lean Cuisines. “I jokingly call it calamity capitalism,” David Sanders, the owner of Doomsday Prep, a company that sells survival supplies and gear, told Slate, about this deeply human drive to soothe uncertainty by buying and buying and buying. There is, of course, a German word for it: Hamsterkäufe, meaning to shop like a nervous, bulging-cheeked hamster.

The shopping baskets overflowing with random groceries may be even less logical in a city like New York. Quarantine regulations in other global cities, even at their most stringent, have allowed the continuation of basic delivery services, particularly for groceries and drugstores. Here, in a city with a robust delivery infrastructure, the ability to order in staples is unlikely to be disrupted, even in the face of a quarantine. Still, while browsing FreshDirect recently, I was amazed by how quickly, after adding things to my cart, I would receive politely apologetic notifications that they were now sold out. Canned peaches? No luck. Tear-open packs of spiced dal? Should’ve clicked faster. Do I need three giant jars of kimchi, fifteen boxes of fancy pasta, a huge sack of paella rice, and enough dried chickpeas and favas to open a falafel joint? No, of course not. But I remind myself that, in more human-scale quantities, they’re the groceries I’d buy anyway, and I lie to myself that it helps.