NEW YORK, March 13 (Reuters) - American shoppers stood in long lines outside grocery stores on Friday, waiting to get inside to buy essentials like toilet paper, pasta, and bottled water, as a worsening coronavirus crisis stoked fears of shortages across the United States.
The run on certain goods prompted some retailers to enforce purchase limits as a way to ensure that stores shelves were not stripped bare.
Still, worried shoppers cleared out grocery store and drug store shelves from Houston to Los Angeles as the virus spread and the death toll rose to 41. Big businesses including Amazon.com have urged employees to work from home, while schools, universities and cultural institutions are closed across the country.
Marlene Russell, 69, a retired school guidance counselor and active medical technician from Mendham, New Jersey, used an anti-bacterial cloth to wipe down the handle of her shopping cart after packing her groceries into her car at Wegmans in Hanover, New Jersey.
“An abundance of caution - semper paratus, like the Coast Guard motto that means ‘always ready’,” she said, pointing to her car’s license plate holder emblazoned with the saying.
Her husband, Gary Russell, 77, a retired Coast Guardsman and businessman, said they had stocked up on wine, cheese and fruit to entertain friends who had traveled to New York from Florida to root for Creighton in the Big East basketball tournament, only to learn after their arrival that the event was canceled due to the coronavirus.
Wegmans was packed with shoppers by mid-morning on Friday, hours after about 40 customers lined up waiting for the store to open. Some shelves were stripped bare of anti-bacterial wipes and food staples such as bulk rice and dried beans, and others were posted with signs limiting purchases of hand sanitizer and bottled water.
At grocer Fairway Market in Manhattan’s Upper West Side neighborhood, shelves normally full of pasta, Oreo cookies, pasta sauce, crackers and toiler paper were depleted on Thursday evening. On the West Coast, at the Pavilions grocery store in Marina del Rey, California, high-demand products like Lysol cleaning wipes were sold out.
Johnson and Johnson accelerated production of over-the-counter pain killer Tylenol to ease any spot inventory crunches, it said on Friday.
J&J, which also makes Listerine mouthwash, said it was shipping stocks of products in a controlled manner. Its plants that make other consumer products were increasing production to ensure retailers were well supplied, it said, adding that it did not expect any shortages.
On Thursday, pharmacy chain Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc and supermarket chain Kroger Co placed purchase limits to stabilize inventory.
Kroger placed a limit on the number of cold, flu and sanitary products per order, while Walgreens said it was limiting disinfectant wipes and cleaners, face masks, hand sanitizers, thermometers and gloves to four each per customer.
John Terry, 33, went to a Manhattan Whole Foods to pick up chicken and other common food items that his wife was unable to get at grocery stores near their Jersey City home.
“I came here to get some of the things she couldn’t,” he said, while leaving the store with a single bag of groceries. “It was insanity,” he said about his local grocery stores. “She went to Costco and there was a line down the block. At another one, the shelves were picked clean.”
Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Writing by Anna Driver; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien