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Connecticut COVID-19 Cases Surge; Grocers Face 'Unprecedented' Wave Of Visitors

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public/NENC
Stella Darko of East Hartford (left) gets a package of bathroom tissue from maintenance supervisor Micali Marison after he restocked over six pallets of tissue at Walmart in Avon on March 13, 2020.

Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday there are now 68 COVID-19 cases in Connecticut, and “that number, in terms of people infected, is probably much more than that.”

State epidemiologist Matthew Cartter said for every diagnosed case in Connecticut, it’s safe to assume that at least 100 people have COVID-19 who haven’t been tested or diagnosed.

“Which puts us around 6,000 or so. And that might be a low estimate,” Cartter said.

As cases surge, Connecticut’s economy has continued to slow. Lamont has ordered restaurants and schools to close. Many businesses are having employees work from home, and the hospitality industry is planning to furlough workers. 

Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Lamont said the economic repercussions of COVID-19 are driving up unemployment claims in a way that is far outpacing historic economic downturns in the state. 

“Usually when a recession comes, in a place like Connecticut, maybe the numbers go up to, say, 5,000 people a week applying for unemployment compensation. Yesterday, 10,000 people applied to the Department of Labor for unemployment compensation,” Lamont said.

Meanwhile, grocery stores across the state are working to keep up with a demand spike, fueled by concerns about the spread of a new coronavirus that has radically altered life in Connecticut and across the country.

Nationwide, grocery stores are contending with an “unprecedented wave” of visitors, according to Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, a major trade organization for grocers. 

“Think of Thanksgiving for a minute,” said Pesce. “We bring in extra associates. We have a sense that the business is going to spike. It’s generally our busiest week of the year. And then, multiply that by 10 -- every day -- for the next, I don’t know, month or so?”

“There was no way that anybody could have written a playbook for this,” Pesce said. 

Pesce said the panic buying in Connecticut is straining stores calibrated to meet much softer levels of daily consumer demand.

“We just can’t keep up,” Pesce said. “There will be some disruption in some items. However, the food supply itself is strong; it’s the human element of this that concerns us.”

“What keeps us up at night, potentially, is our associates being able to get to work. The folks who haul our groceries and deliver our groceries,” Pesce said. 

Right now, Pesce said, the primary concern of grocery stores is safety for both workers and customers. 

Some stores, like Stop & Shop, have announced special shopping hours for seniors, who are particularly susceptible to more severe symptoms of COVID-19. Others are urging shoppers to do simple things, like wash their reusable bags in between each use. 

“The increased shopping related to coronavirus has put a strain on shopping bag supplies,” Maura O’Brien, a spokesperson for Stop & Shop, said in an email. “Though we continue to have bags available and will continue to replenish our bag supply, it would be helpful for us, and our environment, to bring reusable bags when shopping. … Our top priority is the safety and health of our associates and customers. We encourage customers to clean and sanitize their reusable bags before and after their shopping trips.”

Stores are taking other health measures as well. Many have reduced their hours to allow staff to clean and restock shelves. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection announced that stores can temporarily refuse empty beverage containers for redemption under the “bottle bill” law through March 31, with the possibility of an extension.

In a news release, the DEEP cited health concerns voiced by store workers and said:

“Providing the option on an interim basis to allow stores to suspend their redemption activities will provide stores with greater flexibility to more effectively maintain and manage their store environment with a focus on product supply.”

With all the disruptions going on at stores, Pesce, from the Connecticut Food Association, said he’s also concerned about something else: money. 

While some stores are benefiting from a surge in buying now, potential downstream consequences loom for stores when large volumes of customers stock up on nonperishable items, he said. 

“If I’ve got enough toothpaste or mouthwash, or anything else on hand in my home for the next year, then that’s certainly going to cause some deflation on the back end as this recedes,” Pesce said. “That’s definitely going to happen.”

Meanwhile, a scarcity of some items in grocery stores continues to foster a surge in price gouging complaints fielded by state officials. 

As of noon Tuesday, the state Office of the Attorney General reported 71 complaints regarding large price hikes on basic supplies like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and toilet paper. 

It’s a number that has more than doubled since Friday. 

State officials said they received reports of 7.5-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer selling for more than $25 and 2-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer selling for $10 at local gas stations and stores. There also have been complaints about price hikes on face masks -- in one instance, a pack of face masks retailed for nearly $50 with a $200 shipping fee. 

Lamont declared civil preparedness and public health emergencies on March 10, and price gouging during such emergencies won’t be tolerated, Attorney General William Tong said.

Tong said people who price gouge could be subject to severe fines, penalties and potential criminal sanctions. 

“People should not be taking advantage of each other, or their neighbors, or their community,” Tong said Friday. “They should never do that. And never profiteer off of other people or price gouge, but they definitely shouldn’t do it during a public health emergency.”

This story has been updated. 

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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