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Grocery Shopping During the COVID-19 Pandemic

“I can’t sell you that. STAY BEHIND THE PLEXIGLAS, PLEASE!”

“Sorry, and huh… why?”

The cashier glares at me. “Two per person. It says right here ON THE SIGN.”

I love reading but I’m losing track of the latest ways the epidemic is affecting daily life—measures are being ramped up constantly. The supermarket doors and windows are covered with signs. “IF YOU HAVE COVID-19 SYMPTOMS, TURN AROUND,” “NEW OPENING HOURS – 8 AM TO 8 PM,” “DUE TO INCREASED DEMAND, SOME PRODUCTS MAY NOT BE AVAILABLE,” “SOCIAL DISTANCING MEASURES ARE NOW IN PLACE, PLEASE…” “STOP AND CONSIDER OTHERS, DO NOT ENTER IF YOU’RE FEELING ILL, IF YOU RECENTLY TRAVELLED ABROAD OR IF YOU’RE SHOWING SYMPTOMS” etc.

Some supermarkets don’t have baskets anymore while others don’t take cash. Some have banned reusable bags while others are introducing one-way shopping aisles.

Oh, and by the way, I’m not a hoarder. I was just buying four 85g cans of lemon-pepper tuna because of the four-for-$5 special. Canned tuna is versatile and pairs well with rice.

No, honestly, I wasn’t going to list them on eBay.

The cashier grabs two of my cans and put them behind the counter.

Welcome to shopping in the age of the COVID-19 epidemic. Among the many mundane things that no longer feel normal, there’s buying food.

Every household follows a grocery shopping routine based on a number of factors—work schedule, number of mouths to feed, store availability, etc. Our routine is informal and straightforward. Since we both work from home, we shop around during off-peak hours for best deals and fresh produce at Walmart, Food Basics, Loblaws and FreshCo (a 15-minute walk from home) and get Asian groceries in Chinatown. We cook all of our meals and the freezer is just big enough for a couple of pizzas and emergency frozen veggies, so we buy groceries as needed several times a week. The informal agreement is that Feng buys heavy stuff, meat and fruits and I buy dairy products, veggies and bread.

But with the pandemic, buying food has turned into a stressful exercise. We don’t really want to go to the supermarket because of possible COVID-19 exposure. However, the only seemingly unlimited supply we have at home is toilet paper (a pre-pandemic gift from my in-laws when they discovered Costco) and I’m strongly opposed to starving to death so like everyone, we need to shop.

Before you ask, no, I don’t want to have groceries delivered (yet). I like to retain control over one aspect of my life.

At least, Mark is not a teen—I’ve heard they eat a cow or two per day. A seven-year-old kid is happy with cheese, jam, pasta… damn, where the fuck is pasta? Don’t tell me that… yep, boxes were on these shelves, the one that had been cleared out. Crazy how many people have Italian roots in Ottawa—or Asian root, apparently, because the rice shelve is also empty.

“You went out just to buy conditioner?” a snarky customer standing the mandatory “length of a hockey stick” behind me noted the other day at checkout.

No, asshole. I went out to buy bananas but there were bright green and there’s absolutely no chance they will be edible this week. I also needed eggs but eh, empty shelves. Fresh bread would have been nice but there wasn’t a loaf left. The store was also out of chicken nuggets, cauliflower and eggplants. Since I also needed conditioner and I was able to find some—not a panic-buy bestseller, apparently—that’s all I’m leaving the store with.

Also, I know we are strongly encouraged to stay home and I fully understand why, but we still need to shop. And yes, buying conditioner may look shallow but like most of us these days, I’m trying to keep a sense of normalcy. Not buying conditioner isn’t going help the world find a vaccine.

I’m learning that the whole “grocery shopping during a pandemic” dance involves some planning and pure luck. Usually, if I realize Walmart is out of two or three important items on my list, I just turn around, cross Merivale Road and go to Loblaws. Still no luck? Then I’ll cross Baseline Road and go to Food Basics.

Now, I limit myself to one supermarket to play it safe. But you can’t just step in and check if what you’re looking for is available—first, you have to queue to get in because store capacity is limited and enforced. Expect a long, long queue in front of Walmart, mostly, I suspect, because it’s one of the only stores where you can still buy clothing, electronics, toys, home supply, etc. Loblaws is also very popular for some reason.

People in Ottawa tend to hoard. For example, shoppers always clear out shelves before a long weekend because God forbids supermarkets are closed for a day. Now you can imagine the kind of panic-buying shit show we have here, in a city where many households have disposable income and plenty of room to store five pallets of pasta.

We shop much less often than before yet I waste much more time with the grocery shopping chore. The quantity limit is a double-edge sword—it’s great to make sure there’s enough for everyone but two cans of tuna, two yogurt containers, two loaves of bread, etc. are eaten fast enough.

This added to the fact that supermarkets operate reduced hours (closing at 8 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.), that everyone is worried about the supply chain ability to handle the pandemic and that restaurants are closed means there’s no perfect time to go shopping and that you may not find the pantry staples you’re looking for—eggs, butter, yogurt, pasta, rice, veggies, etc.

For many of us, citizens of a “developed country,” this is the first time we may not be able to find products we usually take for granted regardless of the time of the day.

How about you? Has your grocery shopping routine change in your corner of the world?

COVID-19 signs posted on the door of a gas station, Merivale Road, Ottawa
COVID-19 signs posted on the door of a gas station, Merivale Road, Ottawa
There should be a special kind of hell for shoppers who discart their gloves on the parking lot...
There should be a special kind of hell for shoppers who discart their gloves on the parking lot…
Your typical (not too long) queue, Merivale Road, Ottawa
Your typical (not too long) queue, Merivale Road, Ottawa
Queue to get inside Walmart, Merivale Road, Ottawa
Queue to get inside Walmart, Merivale Road, Ottawa
Queue to get inside Walmart, Merivale Road, Ottawa
Queue to get inside Walmart, Merivale Road, Ottawa
The best seller of the year, Walmart, Merivale Road, Ottawa
The best seller of the year, Walmart, Merivale Road, Ottawa

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