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'Absolute chaos': Grocery stores struggle to meet COVID-19 demand

"Absolute chaos."

"This is insane."

"Why do people buy so much toilet paper?"

That's just some of the reaction as the novel coronavirus scare hits supermarkets here and across the country, with panicked shoppers jamming stores and clearing shelves of basic essentials.

Wegmans, Tops Markets and other grocery chains are struggling to keep up with demand for goods such as dried pasta, canned soup and vegetables, bottled water and paper towels.

Tops CEO Frank Curci said in a statement that the company is more frequently cleaning and sanitizing its cashier stations, self-checkouts, restrooms, pharmacy counters and other public areas.

"We appreciate your patience as our supply chain and distribution teams have also been working around the clock to ensure that the food, cleaning supplies, household essentials and pharmaceuticals that you need are reaching our stores as quickly as possible," Curci said.

Wegmans starting Friday night planned to close all its area locations at midnight to allow for store cleaning and restocking of shelves. The eight stores normally open 24 hours that now will close between midnight and 6 a.m. include three locations in Amherst and others in Cheektowaga, Depew, Hamburg, Jamestown and West Seneca.

"We are changing our hours of operation to better serve our customers and communities," the company said in a statement.

Neither Wegmans nor Tops would make an executive available for an interview.

Customers had begun hitting stores for hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies last week, but panic shopping appeared to hit a peak by late Thursday. Social media was filled with photos, videos and firsthand accounts of long, snaking lines at supermarket checkouts and row after row of empty shelves.

"Please pray for your local Wegmans employees during these trying times because this is absolute chaos," said @nick_lukasik Thursday.

User @Naomiatwater49 tweeted: "Went to Wegmans today and can now say that I know what the hunger games must be like."

One shopper at the Wegmans on McKinley Parkway in Hamburg said the parking lot and the store were extremely crowded, but shoppers were "patient. People were not jerks."

"You know it's going to be a busy day when people are wishing you luck – with a smile – when you enter the store," she said. And after a 45-minute wait at the checkout line, she said the same to incoming shoppers on her way out.

The Wegmans on Alberta Drive in Amherst was busy around 3:30 p.m. Friday, but much closer to a typical Sunday than a post-apocalyptic shoppers' nightmare.

There were large selections of produce and still some orange juice, milk and eggs to be had. But paper products, canned soup, most dried pasta and spaghetti sauce and some other staples were going or gone.

"It scared me," said a Grand Island woman, who did not give her name but said the scene reminded her of shopping in her native Bosnia before the civil war.

"There's no more gloves," said University at Buffalo student Jamie Chen.

"Or hand sanitizer," said classmate Asif Bhuiyan.

Dan Helman of downtown Buffalo was trying to purchase some fresh and frozen seafood and meat.

"I don't know why everybody's buying so much chicken," he said.

Danielle Green of Kenmore was disappointed at the low inventory of some key products.

"My kid is home sick and I can't even buy her a box of tissues," she said.

But Green wasn't blaming Wegmans. "The stores can only do what the stores can do," she said.

News Staff Reporter Keith McShea contributed to this report.

All Wegmans stores to close at midnight for cleaning, restocking

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