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California

Business is marvelous ... for sellers of survival supplies and bunkers

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A Costco in Burbank, like other Costcos and grocery stores, has seen a run on water and other goods.
(Raul Roa / Los Angeles Times)

The crowd outside the survival store in Upland stood waiting as the manager opened shop a few minutes early.

On a normal Friday, that eager crew wouldn’t be there.

But as droves of Californians snap up enough pasta to feed Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow and raid shelves of toilet paper in the age of the novel coronavirus, some are prepping for the worst.

That means flocking to stores like Prep and Save and snatching up their stock of survival food, hand sanitizer and masks, canceling vacations and, for those envisioning future disasters, investing in shelters.

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“Our phones have been ringing off the hook,” said Tony DeCastro, manager of Prep and Save, as dozens of customers milled around the aisles. “People are buying whatever they can get their hands on.”

Over the last few weeks, customers have been peppering staff with questions. How should I apply this anti-viral stuff? What’s the best way to store emergency water?

“We are running at 300% to 500% of business,” said Keith Hillen, the store’s owner. “It’s been happening since the end of January, beginning of February.”

The shop is “parsing” N-95 masks to buyers, he added. “Otherwise, we would run out.”

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In California, more than 200 cases of the virus have been reported, including at least four deaths. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency in response to the outbreak, which the World Health Organization last week officially called a pandemic.

Most household budgets can cover hand sanitizer and family-size bags of rice. For some denizens of the 1% and the would-be 1%, personal shelters are becoming a must-have item.

Underground bunkers at Ron Hubbard’s warehouse in Montebello have been selling quickly, purchased by people who had been contemplating buying a shelter over the last few weeks or who had wanted one for a while but never pulled the trigger.

Some of his clientele includes celebrities, he said, “ones that you see in magazines literally every week.”

“No one is buying a bunker only because of coronavirus,” said Hubbard, owner of Atlas Survival Shelters. “The people buying a bunker wanted a bunker before corona, but this has pushed them. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They’re like, ‘Let’s just do it.’”

His bunkers range from those Hubbard says are for the average, working-class American — about 100 square feet, with space for two people — to more luxurious designs, which include a bedroom and room for a leather couch and large TV. Unlike Cold War-era shelters, which he said “felt like a dungeon,” these “are like a house inside.” Most are pre-manufactured with steel.

Prices start around $25,000, he said. He sold most of his inventory last week, he added, with the exception of a “couple tiny ones.”

“I sold two within 30 seconds today,” he said, “that were almost a quarter-million [dollars] apiece.”

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Earlier this month, Jim Cobb published a special edition of his Prepper Survival Guide magazine ($9.95) dedicated to the coronavirus. The issue included “25 essential tips to stay safe” and a section on which face masks “really work.”

Hundreds of people have reached out to the Wisconsin-based writer via social media and emails over the last few weeks, he said. Some are people who have been prepping for years and are offering expertise to those without any experience, while others are newcomers who want to learn the basics.

“I’ve been interested in preparedness for decades,” Cobb said. “In the last seven or eight years, there’s been an increase in interest. And in the last few weeks, it’s like I’m the quarterback of the best football team in the world.”

The last thing Cobb wants to do is promote panic, he said, adding that there is no need for people to stuff their shopping carts with toilet paper.

“The more information we give people, the calmer they tend be,” he said, “because now they can make an informed decision rather than fly off the handle with whatever instinct tells them to do.”

But what has proved to be a boom for some has turned into a bust for others. Swarms of vacationers, driven by the same impulses as budding survivalists, have canceled their trips. Escape today looks different than it did this time last year.

Anthony Ng, owner of Elite 5 Star Travel in Monterey Park, said he had canceled more than 200 trips for clients since January.

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“It’s impacted us greatly,” Ng, 38, said. “We’re preparing for the worst. We have not experienced anything like this. Travel is the last thing on people’s minds right now.”

Customers have canceled their trips all the way through September, he said — they’re not re-booking or postponing their vacations.

“We have been getting a lot of questions like, ‘Where can you redirect us to?’” he said. “Honestly, with the scenario right now, I wouldn’t suggest people travel.”

Only spring breakers seem to be interested in vacation, Ng said — younger travelers who are headed for destinations such as Cancun or Cabo San Lucas.

DC Vekic estimated that she’d lost about a year’s worth of income because of cancellations.

“We really don’t get paid until people travel,” said Vekic, who runs Cosmopolitan Travels Inc. “All the work that we have booked for the last nine months — groups, weddings —
everyone is canceling.”

Travelers have decided against taking trips as far out as November, said Vekic, who’s been in the industry for about a decade and has been working 14-hour days trying to get her clients refunds — even those who didn’t have travel insurance. Some people have called asking for her help getting money back even though they didn’t book through her, she said.

Atlas Survival Shelters
A worker welds the ends of a 40-foot shelter at Atlas Survival Shelters in Montebello in 2013.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

“We weathered swine flu, bird flu and volcanic ash covering half of Europe,” she said. “It has never been this bad, though.”

The travel business, she added, is always the first to be hit.

“I’ve had a lot of people who are booked for the summer hanging on and waiting to see what happens, but I would say that about 70% of my summer bookings have already been canceled,” she said.

But not everyone is jumping ship. She booked two new trips Friday morning after a couple of people felt it would be a good time to travel because prices were low, she said.

She understood their impulse.

“I was considering getting on a plane and going to Cabo for a few weeks,” she said with a laugh, “because it’s cheaper than staying home.”


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