From hope to heartache at Trader Joe’s for seniors looking for a break amid coronavirus panic buying

Trader Joe's store in Monrovia
A Trader Joe’s employee breaks the news to customers that there are no early hours for senior shoppers at the Monrovia store.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Julie Carol was in good spirits Tuesday morning as she approached the front of Trader Joe’s in Monrovia. The 71-year-old would finally get that elusive carton of eggs.

As fear of the coronavirus continues to change people’s everyday lives, some grocery stores recently announced they’d host special shopping hours for senior citizens.

Word had gotten out that those 65 and older would have a special 30-minute time slot to purchase groceries at Trader Joe’s in Monrovia before it opened to the general public at 9:30 AM.

Very quickly, the mood went from hope to confusion and heartache. And anger.


A Trader Joe’s employee on site told those gathered that to his knowledge no such special shopping hours had been planned.

Anna Romo, center, waits with daughter Viola Chatman, right, at Trader Joe's in Monrovia.
Anna Romo, center, waits with daughter Viola Chatman outside the Trader Joe’s in Monrovia.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“We’re open to everybody,” he told the folks in the queue that had already made its way past six adjacent businesses to Party City.

In the early morning, the atmosphere among people in line had been calm and friendly. Suddenly, it turned uncharitable.

A woman among the first five people in line yelled at seniors who had congregated near the front of the store, “The line’s back there!”

Some seniors obliged and trudged despondently to the end of the line. Others didn’t budge.

One man with a cane and a shopping cart made a phone call. “I don’t think I’m going to make it into the Trader Joe’s,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “I’m going to stay in the car. Let’s see if there’s a chance in the afternoon.”

As people were slowly let in at 8:54 a.m., some seniors who had congregated near the front managed to squeeze in. “Excuse me, sir! There’s a line! Come on!” yelled the same woman near the front. She looked to the employee overseeing the line, who shrugged.


Some came early to Trader Joe's in Monrovia in hope of early shopping for seniors.
Senior citizens arrived early to the Trader Joe’s in Monrovia believing doors would open earlier to older residents.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s a disappointment,” Carol said as she sat on a planter in front of the store as other people trickled past her. “They should’ve stuck to the agreement.”

Carol, who just had knee surgery, watched as her husband headed to the end of the line. Too late, she figured.

On Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom urged people 65 and older and those with chronic health conditions to isolate themselves from others and stay home. The move reflected intensifying efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus and the toll it could take, especially on a demographic that is especially vulnerable.


At the Northgate González Market in Long Beach, shoppers also waited in line in hopes of grabbing items on their grocery list. The Latino market is one grocery store chain that implemented a new policy where senior citizens, including people with disabilities and pregnant women, can shop from 7 to 8 a.m. before it opens to the general public.

“This is very important for seniors who can’t move around easily,” Alex Rojas, 45, said in Spanish as he waited in line. The Huntington Beach resident was on the hunt for powdered milk and eggs. He said stores should also include pregnant mothers within these special hours because they’re feeding their baby.

Silvia Quintero Artellano, 62, had just left El Super on Long Beach Boulevard because the line was too long and estimated it’d take her two hours just to get inside. The Long Beach grandmother said she was looking for masa or crema — anything she could get her hands on to cook for her family.

Grocery Outlet in Altadena will also have special hours every Thursday for seniors from 7 to 8 a.m. Store owner Michell Guajardo said employees will also be on site to help make grocery runs for immunocompromised shoppers while they wait in their vehicle.


At the Trader Joe’s, customers were given a limit when purchasing some items: two dozen eggs, a gallon of milk and two proteins from the meat department, an employee announced.

“I feel for others. Everyone is making a sacrifice,” said Marissa Flores, 28, of Monrovia, who was the first in line. She lived nearby and was able to make it to the front of the line by 7 a.m.

A TV reporter who was on hand Tuesday morning at the store told the Los Angeles Times that, earlier that morning, two employees had told her they would be holding special shopping hours for senior citizens. A Trader Joe’s employee later told The Times that that was not the case.

Trader Joe’s spokeswoman Kenya Friend-Daniel said in an email Tuesday afternoon that the grocery store chain, which is headquartered in Monrovia, hadn’t implemented company-wide special shopping hours but each store is doing what they feel is best for shoppers.


“Our focus continues to be on best serving all of our customers, from providing a safe and clean shopping environment, to doing everything we can to help ensure customers need special assistance,” she said. “Or other accommodations, and in those cases we will do what we always do, with care and integrity.”

Carol said she’d been told by an employee the previous day to come by in the morning bright and early for the special time slot.

Seniors waiting in line said their children told them about the special hours and they’d read about it online, too.

 Trader Joe's store in Monrovia
The Monrovia Trader Joe’s opened to shoppers of all ages at 9 a.m.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Fred Nava, 67, of San Gabriel and his neighbor Don Busapathamrong, 54, were among the first shoppers to get in and out of the store Tuesday morning.

The two arrived at 8:55 a.m. and, managing to blend in, headed straight inside.

“I just walked right up and got sucked right in,” Nava said.

Nava said he invited Busapathamrong to join him the day before. Busapathamrong, an ER nurse, said they tried to keep an eye on websites offering special shopping hours.


Nava said older people needed the extra help.

“Seniors can’t move fast enough and there’s limited handicap parking,” the retired auto insurance employee said.