Hoarding of cleaning and sanitation products frustrates customers, triggers purchase limits

  • MIKE BRESTOVANSKy/Tribune-Herald Hilo residents John and Mickey Bowen found many empty shelves Wednesday at Target.

While there has still been no confirmed case of COVID-19 infection on the Big Island, that hasn’t stopped shortages of vital hygiene and cleaning supplies from frustrating shoppers.

“This is ridiculous!” shouted one Walmart shopper on Wednesday upon finding the nearly barren shelves of the toilet paper aisle. “People need to stop panicking over this damn virus.”

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At stores around Hilo, toilet paper, soap, disinfectant, rubbing alcohol and other cleaning items are in very short supply or have run out entirely, to the chagrin of many shoppers seeking such products not out of concern for the coronavirus, but simply because of their own day-to-day lives.

“Even this special soap that I only buy every three months when I need a refill — gone,” said Pahoa resident Sharon Hutchison, who was in the Hilo Target on Wednesday for a routine grocery shopping trip. “I only need it every few months, and this time it happened to fall in the middle of all this.”

Most stores around town have posted signs on their empty shelves advising shoppers that, because of coronavirus-triggered demand, certain items are out of stock indefinitely. Staff at Longs Drugs were unable to say when disinfecting wipes, for example, would return to shelves.

“I think people are definitely panicking,” Hutchison said. “They’re watching the news and seeing everyone else buying this stuff. But there’s absolutely no reason to panic right now.”

The larger big-box retailers have issued statements about their coronavirus policies. A statement from Target CEO Brian Cornell on Tuesday confirmed that Target stores will limit the number of certain cleaning items shoppers can purchase. The Hilo location limits purchases of disinfectant wipes, hand-sanitizers, hand and face wipes, paper towels and toilet paper to only six items per shopper.

Walmart announced Tuesday that placing limits on the number of items someone can buy will be left to the discretion of individual locations. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Hilo location had not imposed any such limits.

Both retailers also promised to sanitize their stores more frequently. Hilo Target customers Mickey and John Bowen said an employee wiped down the handle of their shopping cart before they took it, which they appreciated.

Russell Ruderman, a state lawmaker who also is owner of the Island Naturals grocery chain, said his stores will also double their daily cleanings, although he added that his business has seemingly been spared the ravages of panic shoppers.

“It’s not affecting us very much right now,” Ruderman said. “There’s no interruptions in our supply. Basically, it’s business as usual.”

The Bowens returned from the mainland earlier this week and were taken aback by the lack of available supplies.

“Right now, it seems like just another hoarding situation,” Mickey Bowen said. “People buying things because other people are buying things.”

But in some cases, the hoarding of supplies has had impacts not just on shoppers but on their jobs.

Jason Hashimoto, store manager for Hilo Ace Hardware, said several customers seeking particle masks or respirators for construction work have left empty-handed after fearful shoppers cleaned out all masks in the store.

State epidemiologist Sarah Park has said that face masks are generally ineffective at protecting the wearer from coronavirus infection, and generally only serve to help prevent an infected wearer from spreading the disease further.

The Bowens said two people on their return flight were wearing masks, but for the most part people seemed unconcerned about the pandemic.

“I’m not too worried about it — yet,” said Mickey Bowen. “If I need to, I can just order some of this stuff on Amazon.”

Items such as paper towels and disinfectants currently dominate Amazon’s top 20 “Health and Household” category, although many have already sold out there as well, with third-party sellers offering similar products for inflated prices.

To combat such tactics locally, Mayor Harry Kim issued an emergency proclamation Wednesday prohibiting price gouging for certain vital supplies.

The proclamation explicitly forbids any price increases for food, water, ice, medical supplies and personal hygiene products — including toilet paper, hand-sanitizer and more — and even undefined products “that the seller or contractor knows or should know are intended for use by any member of the public or entity of any type to prepare for, respond to, or use due to circumstances giving rise to the emergency related to COVID-19.”

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The proclamation will remain in effect for at least 60 days.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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