On Tuesday afternoon in downtown Phoenix, the soap aisle at the CVS on First Avenue and Jefferson Street was suspiciously empty. Two 32-ounce bottles of hand sanitizing gel sat alone on an otherwise bare shelf.
They were the last holdouts of a brand-new shipment of hand sanitizer products that came in just hours earlier, the clerk said. "But they'll be gone by the end of the day."
Tales like this one are becoming more common nationwide as the outbreak of the novel coronavirus spurs customers to "panic buy" products like hand sanitizer, face masks, and cold medicine — and wipe out supply everywhere from local drugstores to Amazon. Last month, amid news of the novel coronavirus and its related infectious respiratory disease COVID-19, hand sanitizer sales were up some 73 percent in the United States, according to the market research company Nielsen.
Disease experts say hoarding bottles of disinfectant or face masks isn't as helpful as washing your hands regularly and staying home if you feel sick. It can also run the risk of depleting resources for vulnerable patients or medical professionals who need them more urgently.
But that hasn't deterred customers in Arizona, where state health officials have tested more than 30 people for COVID-19 and announced a second presumptive case on Tuesday. Many stores in the Phoenix metro area are either out of hand sanitizer or rationing out what little they have left.
On Tuesday, New Times stopped in at 10 grocery stores, big-box stores, and drugstores across Phoenix — locations of Fry's, CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Target, and Safeway. All but two retailers were completely sold out of hand sanitizer products — and the two that weren't (a Walgreens and a CVS) had just gotten new shipments that day.
At one Walgreens store on 16th Street and Thomas Road, the sales were unlike anything workers there had ever experienced.
“I’ve definitely never seen the shelves that empty,” laughed a cashier named Nikki, who said she's worked there for a year. In front of her was a large display of disinfecting wipes and sprays. “We might be having a sale anyway,” she said, but the promotion was “probably” related to the coronavirus.
At a CVS nearby, also completely sold out of hand sanitizer, cashiers told stories of customers hoarding the alcohol-based goo. On Monday, they said, a man came to the store and bought out all the travel-sized bottles of hand sanitizer after seeing the big bottles were already gone.
Downtown, at Fry’s, a cashier named Aaron said the entire chain was dealing with an outage. “The warehouse is out,” he said, but they’ll be “getting more ASAP.”
At a different Fry's, on 44th Street, store manager Rick Gale said the store was limiting customers to five sanitation, cold, and flu products, citing the undersupplied warehouse.
“We’re going through it so fast," he said. "We get some, and it’s gone. We get some, and it’s gone.”
Representatives for Fry's at the corporate level didn't respond to requests for comment by press time, but Costco, CVS, and Walgreens all issued statements that they've had increasing demand for hand sanitizers and masks. CVS and Walgreens spokespeople mentioned they're working to meet customer demand.
Meanwhile, if you've got travel plans and you're concerned about germs, you may still be able to make that last-minute hand sanitizer purchase on your way out of town.
Greg Roybal, a representative for the aviation department at the city of Phoenix, said hand sanitizers are "selling as fast as they are stocked" in airport retail stores, but "there have been no issues with keeping them on the shelves."