Pandemonium at Trader Joe’s, with an extra dose of insane carelessness

By Johannes Ernst


I had to venture out today for a new dental crown, and on the way back, I decided to stop at Trader Joe’s to pick up some eggs. Traffic on highway 101 was extremely light, although it was Friday afternoon – many people must be working from home. So I was quite surprised when Trader Joe’s parking lot was packed.

Walking into the store, a scene that I had never seen: checkout lines that disappeared into the back of the store; all registers open; most staffed by two employees for extra speed. And then: bare shelves, with lots of empty shipping boxes in the aisles – customers must have been picking up things from shelves faster than employees could restock and remove their boxes.

I had done my bulk “prepper” shopping the weekend before, when everything was normal and I only got an occasional glance from people. And today apparently everbody decided it was time to do the same thing. Must have been Trump’s emergency declaration today.

While waiting in the long time, I had time to observe, and ponder. First, what did people pile up in their carts? Almost all of the carts I could see had typical weekend grocery stuff in it. A bag of chips. A can of corn. Some veggies. One guy had filled his cart mostly with already cut-up fresh fruit. Hardly anybody had enough stuff in their cart to last for longer than a week, unless they subsist on a chocolate snack diet. And you are panic-shopping for what, today? So you have to venture out shopping again in just a few days?

What about high-energy, long-shelf-life bulk food instead? Like 25 or 50 pound bags of rice, or a few dozen cans of everything from veggies to processed meat? Admittedly Trader Joe’s is not the store where to get those things … so why even go panic shop there? Few of the people I saw seemed to have thought through why they are panic shopping today and what problem they are trying to solve.

But it gets worse. Here I’m standing in line, and for the lack of anything better to do, I count/estimate the number of people in the store. A few hundred, I thought (let’s call it 250 for my argument here). Standing all here, in relatively close proximity, all breathing the same air. And there are exactly three people (me, and an Asian couple, unsurprisingly) who wear a mask.

To compare, Santa Clara County (about 1.8 million people) today reports on its website 79 Coronavirus cases, of which 36 are hospitalized. Accounting for the disaster that is testing in the US, other countries have about 10% of known cases hospitalized, so that would lead to about 360 known cases if testing had been done properly. However, given the rapid growth of the disease (currently about 30% a day in the county), many more people will be contagious prior to the onset of symptoms, and of course there are those who have few or no symptoms at all. So I will pull a number out of my hat, and claim that there might be 5x as many cases as there are proven (well, would be proven) positive test at this time. That leads to 1800 infected, and likely contagious, people in the county today.

So, back of an envelope, 1 out of 1000 people in Santa Clara County today has the virus and can infect me. The grocery store, when I was in it, had about 250 people in it, with new people pouring in as soon as others left. I’d think that certainly more than a thousand people moved through that store today. Which means at least one infected person moved through the store, stood in line like everybody else, breathed and exhaled, and left their infectious droplets in the air around them.

And nobody, nobody – other than the three of us who were wearing face masks – seemed the least concerned about it. On the same day that the county banned all meetings above 100 people! (for good reason, given the above calculation!)

The employees, at least, had hand sanitizer at their checkouts and used it frequently. But each one of those thousand-plus customers walked by a checker within a few feet, and paused to pay and get their purchases packed, and looked at the checker and spoke to them in a direct line of sight – and exhaled droplets. There were some Corona infections in that store today.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why epidemics spread. Needlessly. Because people don’t think.