SCHENECTADY — Aside from deserted streets across the Capital Region on Saturday, there were few visible reminders of the pandemic sweeping through the country.
But one element has been constant as authorities scramble to contain the mounting coronavirus.
Empty shelves, mostly toilet paper.
Visits to over a dozen Capital Region-area supermarkets over the past week, from Niskayuna to Albany, revealed the familiar scene of shoppers milling around ravaged shelves, shaking their heads before moving on.
“We call it panic-buying and that’s what you’re seeing with these retailers,” said Patrick Penfield, professor of practice-supply chain management and director of executive education at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University.
It’s human nature for people to try to claw back some semblance of control in a crisis, Penfield said.
For many, that manifests itself in the form of stockpiling toilet paper.
“You try to control what you can and part of this is buying things you think can help your family,” Penfield said. “Believe it or not, toilet paper is something people want to buy, and they buy lots of it.”
Shortages continued throughout the weekend as #ToiletPaperCrisis became a top trending topic on Twitter.
The purchasing spree, said Penfield, has been exasperated by a lack of clarity from government officials on the specific definition of “quarantine,” as well as the perceived lack of transparency by the federal government on the severity of the epidemic, which has infected 613 in New York state as of late-Saturday, according to the governor’s office.
“I think these things without definitions are causing panic-buying,” Penfield said. “And the supply chain can’t react fast enough to that type of demand.”
Unlike in China, where the virus originated, or in Italy, authorities have not formally ordered a quarantine.
But officials are advising “social-distancing.” Gatherings of over 500 people are now banned in New York, and bars and restaurants have been required to slash their capacities in half to minimize potential spread.
Since demand for toilet paper is typically consistent, Penfield said, it is unlikely the paper products industry will expand capacity to account for the shortages.
Doing so would result in soaring short-term expenses, he said. After the crisis passes, however, manufacturers will face the dilemma of ramping down operations.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Penfield said.
Manufacturers are more likely to put suppliers on allocation, which would then trickle down to consumers in the form of restrictions.
Hannaford, Price Chopper/Market32 and other retailers have already, or intend to, implement purchase limits on high-demand items, including hand sanitizer.
“Sources were stable until demand spiked, leading some to stockpile,” said Mona Golub, vice president of public relations and consumer services at PriceChopper/Market32.
Golub said the Schenectady-based chain will work with its suppliers to ensure the supply chain continues to flow.
To soothe a frazzled public, Penfield said state, local and federal authorities should focus on transparent and open communication.
“I think we have got to put peoples’ minds at ease,” he said.
“It really depends on the consistency of the messaging people are getting from the authorities,” she said. “Peoples’ behavior is a reaction to the consistency of messaging.”
Since the pandemic emerged, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been holding daily press briefings, sometimes multiple sessions per day.
“I think it’s very important that at this time we communicate with the people of New York facts and reality in the midst of this situation where you have a lot of opinions and rumors,” Cuomo said on a Saturday conference call. “If people have information, information and facts defeat fear and the anxiety in society is obviously an issue that we have to address as much as we have to address dealing with the virus at this point.”