A steady line of shoppers waits for its turn to enter Winco Foods in Eureka. (Shomik Mukherjee –€” The Times-Standard)
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COVID-19 fears have prompted mass shopping sprees, leading management of multiple stores to make operational changes.

Shoppers have packed stores in a rush to buy toilet paper, bottled water and dry foods in large amounts, managers said Tuesday. The result has been one of the busiest stretches that multiple Eureka store managers can remember.

“This is unprecedented,” said Costco manager Tamara Phillis, who has been at the Eureka location since 2001. “When we get a truckload of toilet paper, it’s literally gone in 45 minutes.”

Costco has limited its food court to just hot dogs, pizza and chicken bakes to limit the amount staff handles food products. The store also removed all the tables in the food court and reduced staff in the photography department.

North Coast Co-op is now offering a senior-only shopping hour between 7 and 8 a.m. at both its locations, the store announced on Facebook. Shoppers will now also not be allowed to bring reusable cups and containers from home.

The store’s self-serve food stations are now closed, along with bakery and deli samples.

Winco Foods in Eureka has gone further — allowing shoppers in by groups of about two dozen to limit the number of customers in the store at one time. The move falls in line with health officials, who have called for locales to limit gatherings of people.

COVID-19, or the new coronavirus, has spread into a global pandemic and forced closures and cancellations across the nation and world.

Although there are no confirmed cases of the virus in Humboldt County, the number of available tests remains low — prompting local hospital executives to call for people experiencing only mild flu-like  symptoms to not seek testing.

Because of lockdowns in countries like Italy and China and a major shelter-in-place event in the Bay Area, shoppers have been stocking up for what could be an extended period of time without major businesses.

But store managers like Phillis say that people are largely not following the expert-recommended social distancing guidelines of staying more than six feet away from every other person.

“This morning, we had so many elderly here shopping,” Phillis said. “We have signs throughout calling for social distancing, but we can’t control what people do. I think some people are very concerned and some people aren’t as concerned — it might be our culture up here, where some people think if it (gets worse) we’ll just go camp out in the woods.”

A sign at Costco in Eureka shows what items are out of order. (Shomik Mukherjee — The Times-Standard)

Over at North Coast Co-op’s location in Arcata, shoppers on Tuesday remained socially-not-distant: Several shoppers embraced while others huddled together around produce corners and touched multiple vegetables.

Others aren’t heeding many officials’ call to go out into the public only when necessary.

“We’ve actually been going shopping more often,” said Karen Paff, another Co-op shopper. “It’s the last social thing for us to do.”

“It’s an uncertain time,” said Joe Szewczak, another shopper, “but I wouldn’t say I’m worried yet.”

Outside Winco, shoppers on Tuesday evening were lined up for a long stretch. Some of them cracked jokes among themselves about the virus.

“You know, this virus thing, is more political,” said Donnie Gutschmidt. The 64-year-old Eureka resident reflected on elderly people dying from the virus: “If I get it, I get it, and I’m right at the age where you’re supposed to!”

Other shoppers are more serious about the illness’ severity. Eric Knuckles, 38, of Eureka, said he and his kids (who are out of school due to closures) said they’re taking necessary precautions.

But the family isn’t over-shopping — Knuckles said he wants to make sure everyone gets a chance to buy supplies.

“These new rules are probably for the best,” he said, “just to keep everybody safe and keep it down.”

Standing outside the entrance on Tuesday, lead clerk Dustin Gwin was telling shoppers to get in line at the entrance like everyone else. Gwin said most customers have been respectful, and he wants to see the store create senior-only hours.

As for Gwin’s own safety against the virus?

“I work with the public, so I’m probably going to get it,” he said it. “My concern for is my daughter; she’s 2 years old. I’m on my 15th day straight, working overtime every day to keep this thing going.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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