Panic buying at L.A. supermarkets amid coronavirus leaves shelves empty, many anxious

A gloved grocery shopper expresses dismay over the empty shelves at a Ralphs supermarket in Panorama City on Friday.
(Associated Press)

With dozens of novel coronavirus cases confirmed in Los Angeles County, hordes of residents are swarming supermarkets, working from home and altering their lives in dramatic ways.

Some of these behaviors are the result of recommendations from health officials, while others are based on instinct and, in some cases, fear.

Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics, compared the situation to a “national earthquake” that is hitting hard but will pass.

“If we just close down the damn country … we might get in front of this and stop it, in which case that short-term panic will lead to a collective sigh of relief,” he said.



The Ralphs parking lot in Koreatown on Friday morning looked like a crowded DMV office.

Though parking spots were available, gridlock reigned as motorists drove in the wrong direction, blocked pathways and eased slowly around pedestrians walking every which way.

Inside, the supermarket off 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue was a hive of activity.

As three cashiers rang up purchases, dozens of customers waited in long queues that snaked through the market, past the fruit and vegetables displays and down the condiment and milk aisles. Many of them pushed shopping carts loaded with gallon jugs of water, stacks of frozen meat and cases of ramen noodles.

A Vons supermarket in South Pasadena was all out of anti-bacterial wipes Wednesday.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

One overflowing cart was being pushed by two friends preparing to have their kids home from school for the rest of the month.

“I’ve been here, to Vons across the street, we’ve been to Target,” said Monica Boyd, 30, whose teenage son will be one of thousands across the county staying home Monday. “I had friends ask me to get them food because they’re in the Valley and they’re saying everything is kind of cleaned out down there. So this is a combination of me getting groceries for friends and mostly for my kid.”

Boyd’s friend, Shulanda Rush, 28, joined her for the trip. A property manager in Koreatown, Rush said her 5-year-old daughter may have to stay with the girl’s father for the next few weeks because he has more family support to care for her during the workweek.

The friends knew that people were cleaning out store shelves, but it still surprised them to see it in person.


Most of the ramen in the store was gone. So was the powdered milk, most of the water, toilet paper, dried pasta, rice and allergy medication. It was more packed than a pre-Super Bowl, Cinco de Mayo, Thanksgiving or July 4 weekend shopping rush.

“I’m not really worried about what’s going on, I think it scares me more that people are panicking, so it’s not business as usual,” Boyd said. “They’re just like, ‘Let’s come and buy every ... thing.’”

“I walked here last night to get allergy medicine and it was all gone. Allergy medicine does not block viruses. What is happening here?” she said in exasperation. “I just think it’s ridiculous in a general sense. The fact that there’s no toilet paper is insane. I don’t understand how that is going to save you from anything.”

Shelves of toilet paper are half-empty at a Pavilions supermarket in South Pasadena on Wednesday.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Rush saw how tense things can get when she visited Vons recently and the toilet paper shelves were empty. “They had people yelling at them two days ago at the counter. ‘When you going to have more tissue?!’ I’m like, why are you yelling at them? They just work here, bro.”

Health recommendations

This is what L.A. County public health officials are saying:

DISTANCE: People are advised to avoid communal eating, meetings or gatherings with more than 50 attendees, and all nonessential travel, both international and domestic, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said Thursday at a news conference. Those who are immunocompromised, pregnant or elderly should consider avoiding gatherings of even 10 people, she said.

FOOD: Officials advise avoiding communal food. Costco has stopped providing food samples at stores, while some Las Vegas casinos have closed their buffets.

EXERCISE: Group fitness classes where people aren’t able to stay 6 feet apart should be avoided entirely, she said.

GOVERNMENT: All city departments were being ordered to postpone or cancel public events and meetings expected to draw 50 or more people. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti also called for a ban on all public events and conferences on city-owned properties expected to draw 50 or more people. He also said visitors were effectively banned from City Hall.

General L.A. County Health Department guidance:

  • Event organizers should postpone or cancel nonessential gatherings of 250 or more until at least the end of March.
  • Smaller events should proceed only if the organizers can implement social distancing of 6 feet per person.
  • Gatherings of individuals who are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 (people older than 65, pregnant women and those with chronic illness) should be limited to no more than 10 people.
  • This guidance does not apply to activities such as attendance at regular school classes, work or essential services.
  • This guidance does not apply to essential public transportation, airport travel or shopping at a store or mall.
  • This guidance does not apply to congregate living situations, including dormitories and homeless encampments.
  • If you are mildly sick with a fever, stay home except to get medical care.
  • Individuals who are elderly, have underlying health conditions or are pregnant should consider contacting their providers earlier when they are sick.
  • Avoid nonessential travel, public gatherings and places where large groups of people congregate.