It was borderline surreal on Tuesday.
The parking lot at the Manteca Food-4-Less was full. All but two checkout lines were open.
Just like at other supermarkets there were shelves picked completely clean. There had been a stack of Jif peanut butter perhaps six cases high and two deep Saturday where they place promotional sale items across from the meat counter. They were all gone by Tuesday afternoon and the rest of the area was bare. There were perhaps 30 jars of peanut butter left in the store. Toilet paper was nowhere to be found. It is a safe bet rolls of toilet paper were as easy to find in Manteca on St. Patrick’s Day as a four leaf clover.
Frozen food was fairly decimated with the only item I buy in that section — veggie burgers — almost all wiped out except for “turkey veggie” patties that I hate to tell the marketing geniuses at Kraft Heinz is neither fennel or fowl.
Food-4-Less normally stays open 24/7 with stocking taking place on the graveyard shift. Usually on my way home at 1:30 a.m. you’ll see a handful of cars in the parking lot belonging to employees and perhaps one or two shoppers. Early Tuesday morning at 2 o’clock there were more cars than I’ve ever seen before but the store was closed. Food-4-Less had called in everyone they could and were trying to restock the shelves.
The store was enforcing strict limits: Only one milk item per shopper, the same for paper products. Water — there actually still had some at 1 p.m. — was limited to a case. They were being more liberal with bread as you could buy a whooping two items. Fortunately there was no shortage or restrictions on Dreyer’s Ice Cream purchases. It would be fairly unbearable to face the zombie apocalypse without Dryer’s chocolate chip ice cream.
And perhaps that was the most surreal. The talking heads talking about people panicking have been doing so because quite frankly they don’t have much new information to breathlessly bring to you with 24/7 wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage.
No one was panicking. Everyone was calm and courteous. Many of the folks I talked with were shopping for elderly neighbors or filling in gaps in their own cupboards. There were no signs of “hoarding” as you saw Saturday when some people were buying 30 cans of corn.
No one was fidgety in line nor did they sound impatient.
If this is as bad as it gets what are we worried about?
Of course the answer to that question is yet to be determined.
Besides from the fact people we know directly or who are relatives and friends of acquaintances that are likely to get sick in the coming weeks either from the coronavirus or it’s less lethal “cousin” in the form of a flu bug, the real question is the sucker punch people are going to take in the pocketbook.
You just don’t shutdown whole segments of the economy overnight and not have a severe impact.
The conventional wisdom is most of us live paycheck to paycheck or are a month of two away at best from the financial abyss is about to get tested in a way that we’ve never experienced before in a modern economy. After catastrophes such as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and such there is hard financial loss followed by a surge in economic activity as communities rebuild and a recovery takes place.
What is apparently our best shot at cushioning the pandemic and keeping the death toll as low as possible is essentially pulling the plug on much of the economy. How long we can stay “unplugged” and then how long it will take us to recover is a reason for serious concern.
When you have Verizon taking out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago announcing that they won’t be slapping on late charges due to the coronavirus pandemic, you get that people in companies that are supposed to be gurus at predicting the ability of consumers to spend have an inkling of what is coming our way.
Rest assured that people who were banking on their 401k to retire in the near future will be rethinking such a move after the stocks and mutual funds have lost a third of their value in about the same number of days it is taking most of us now to find toilet paper we can buy.
Those hit the hardest will be those making minimum wage or close to it. To minimize the damage small businesses that provide the bulk of the jobs in this country will need to be able to weather the pandemic. As it stands now the health experts that are calling the shots say it will take at least eight weeks to flatten the coronavirus down enough that it won’t overwhelm us.
It is clear something drastic might be needed such as a two-month abeyance of debt payment of any kind without incurring more interest across the board for everyone from individuals to corporations. The same relief may have to be extended to renters which would mean landlords with investment debt on rented property would need the same relief as would any payments that those that hold the mortgage papers have to make on any debt they have.
That may sound radical and way out of the box but it would be less destructive than a bunch of politicians deciding who will be winners or losers using tax credits, direct bailouts, or other economic remedies that require a transfer of money from one group of people to another.
By simply freezing debt payment and interest accumulation for two months universally it substantially increases the chances of the coming months and years making the Great Depression era seem like a period of robust growth in comparison. It also doesn’t add to the massive national debt.
If this sounds too radical and too impractical of a solution, then you need to ask yourself how long are those households with a cushion of one or two paychecks — if even that — as well as businesses slammed by everything from minimum wage to new rules that constitute what an hourly employee is that already struggling to avoid slipping over the edge can last with an economy on lockdown. Two weeks might be do-able. But if we’re talking eight weeks Donald Trump has a better chance of winning the Democratic nomination for president on the first ballot at the convention this summer than much of the economy does of being able to dodge a lethal bullet.
The solution being advanced now — a $1,000 check to most taxpayers and Social Security recipients — is akin to taking a water pistol to fight a towering inferno.
And if you need more proof that what we are dealing with is new territory as far as economic disasters are concerned, all you had to do was to have venture out onto the 120 Bypass Tuesday afternoon at 3 o’clock. The decisions of seven Bay Area counties to “lock” everything down with a shelter in place order pulled the plug temporarily — and possibly in some cases permanently – on commuter jobs that are now powering a large chunk of the Northern San Joaquin Valley eliminated all traces of backups.
Complain as much as we want about the massive traffic jam that is typically the Bay Area commute, without it the local economies will need life support.