Skip to main content

People line up at the cash registers at a Costco in Ottawa, amid growing concern about COVID-19, on Friday, March 13, 2020.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Shoppers young and old roam the parking lot clutching sweaty quarters for shopping carts, but there are none to be found. Inside, the meat section is down to livers and tongues. Carrots are gone entirely. The lineup to pay stretches past the pharmacy, down the dairy aisle and ends in front of the chicken legs at the butcher’s counter.

“I spent three hours in there,” says Maria Soares, 60, outside the Peter’s No Frills at the corner of Lansdowne and Dundas in Toronto. “I keep telling people relax, relax."

Her words did not have the desired effect.

The grocery store has become an epicentre of anxiety in the age of COVID-19. A place where shoppers address the many unknowns surrounding the pandemic with eight-kilo bags of rice, paper towels and bottled water. Few can fully explain their shopping choices.

Coronavirus guide: The latest news on COVID-19 and the toll it’s taking around the world

Should I cancel my plans? How to get social distancing right in the coronavirus outbreak

“Potatoes, yeah, I don’t know what to do with them,” says Harry Sumner, 72, pointing to items in his cart. “But the Irish lived off them.”

On Friday morning, this No Frills was trending on Twitter, right behind Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the wife of the Prime Minister. She tested positive for the new coronavirus. The store had closed its doors the previous evening for overcrowding, prompting tweets, then news items, then talk of food shortages, then more crowds.

The eponymous owner of the store stood by the front door on Friday morning trying to avoid another temporary shutdown. He declined to speak on the record, saying all questions had to go through the parent company, Loblaws. But he didn’t mind heaping praise on his staff to virtually anyone who approached him, and expressed hope that they wouldn’t burn out.

In Italy, where the virus has hit particularly hard, the government shut down all commerce aside from grocery stores and pharmacies, declaring them essential services. Here, the importance of orderly, well-stocked grocers with deep supply chains is becoming readily apparent as shoppers across the country stock up. Some bleary-eyed employees have already taken that elevated status to heart.

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues, with more cases diagnosed in Canada. The Globe offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the virus in your community.

The Globe and Mail

Alex, the young employee in charge of fetching carts, made sure to dole them out to families and the elderly first. He waived the 25-cent fee and dispensed a squirt of hand sanitizer to each customer he thought could use it. “It’s just a little something I can offer,” he explains. “Everyone’s a little on edge.”

“You might be my favourite person in the city,” says one shopper to Alex, after receiving a cart, ending a half-hour wait.

“I’m hearing that today,” he replies.

Store suppliers have run low on certain items. Just one skid of toilet paper arrives from an order for 10. When staff wheel out the Renova 2-ply around noon, customers swarm. One worker writes “limit of 2 NO EXCEPTIONS” on the sign above. Most shoppers heed the rule, but more than one husband-and-wife team decide to take two each and line up separately.

Amid the rush, a group of three smirking kids stroll by. “Yo, I was in Wuhan last week,” yells one. “It was actually pretty awesome.” They laugh. Then all the shoppers around them laugh.

Why toilet paper? Why water? Nobody can explain.

“You just don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Samuel Frimpong, 61, loading 192 bottles of water into the trunk of his taxi. “The children can’t go to school, nobody’s taking the taxis. I’m on shift but my wife told me to get down here before everything disappears. Yes, I’m worried."

Anna Dacosta, 53, arrived to shop at 7 p.m. the previous night only to find the front doors closed and a line of customers outside. After waiting two hours to get inside, she says she left. “That scared me, so that’s why I bought all this,” she says the next day, nodding to a cart overflowing with $400 worth of rice, cereal, beans and other sundries.

“I’m from Portugal. They’ve closed all the restaurants, museums, discotheques, everything. Maybe this’ll be nothing here, but what if we can’t work, can’t go outside? I bought enough for two or three weeks.”

There is zero unrest, except a little more honking from the overfull parking lot and some spousal squabbling. Some people walk with smiles of disbelief. ”I’m almost embarrassed to be here,” says Chris Murphy, 51, front-man of the band Sloan. “As if I’m buying into the fear."

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.