When government leaders began to pepper their warnings about COVID-19 with phrases such as “social distancing,” “flattening the curve” and “self-quarantine,” those expressions quickly became part of the lexicon.
They also prompted Americans to rush to grocery stores to stock up on supplies to last enough days if they were required to self-quarantine. The Cleveland and Bradley County community was no exception.
Grocery store shelves quickly became decimated in the early going as anxious shoppers, uncertain of when the pandemic would ease, converged to snap up toilet paper, cleaning supplies, foodstuffs such as rice and beans, as well as canned goods.
The rush left grocery store employees scrambling to restock shelves before the crowds returned to get their hands on the latest delivery of toilet paper.
The shortages also induced bathroom tissue manufacturer Resolute Forest Products, which operates a plant on the other side of the Hiwassee River in Calhoun, to step up efforts to meet demand.
But Food City South's Mitch Cochran said that while it isn’t technically a shortage of toilet paper, increased demand placed pressure on the supply chain as warehouse workers struggled to pick, palletize and ship out the paper product.
However, he said supplies are now improving and demand has not been as intense as it was when social distancing pleas were first sent out.
“The last several days have been more calm,” he said during a phone interview with the Cleveland Daily Banner. “But every day changes, and we have had to adapt.”
Cochran, whose store is located on McGrady Drive, said employees have been coming in early and staying late to ensure shelves are restocked.
“This is a new situation for everyone,” he said, adding that in his 47 years in the grocery industry, he “has never seen anything like this.”
Food City, as well as several other stores in the region, has been opening early to allow senior citizens — who are considered to be the most vulnerable to COVID-19 — to shop first, from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m.
Keith Scott, manager of Cooke’s Food Store on Keith Street, said employees are doing the best they can to ensure customers have access to the products they need.
However, some items remain in short supply.
“We haven’t had hand sanitizer for the last three weeks,” he recently told the Banner, adding that when shelves of certain in-demand items are restocked, they are emptied by 8 a.m.
“The toilet paper is gone within the first hour,” he said.
While Publix’s manager Rob Barron declined to discuss specifics regarding customer product demand and store operations, he did say he was proud of his employees’ hard work.
“We have an unbelievable team at the store,” Barron said.
He also praised the local community, stating that he is grateful for the “unity in our community.”
In a message posted on Publix’s social media page, company CEO Todd Jones said the chain remains focused on product availability.
“We are working tirelessly to have the items you need on our shelves,” he said. “We have applied purchase limits on some key items to allow more customers to get what they need.”
Publix has also designated Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., as senior shopping hours for customers age 65 and over.
The shopping hour will continue until further notice, Jones said.
On March 16, President Donald Trump announced a plan to stem the spread of the virus by asking Americans to stay at home for 15 days.
However, the dash to stock up on bathroom tissue, as well as other grocery items, had already begun.
According to The Associated Press, on March 15, President Trump called on people to stop hoarding groceries and other supplies as one of the nation's most senior public health officials urged Americans to act with more urgency to protect themselves and others against the coronavirus.
“You don't have to buy so much," President Trump said at a news conference. "Take it easy. Just relax.”
On Sunday, he said he will extend the plan for 30 days.
"The better you do, the faster this whole nightmare will end," he said during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing. "Therefore, we will be extending our guidelines to April 30 to slow the spread.”
The president said he believed the nation will be “well on the way to recovery by June 1."