Fear, anxiety and Champagne: How Palo Alto is bracing for coronavirus | News | Palo Alto Online |


Fear, anxiety and Champagne: How Palo Alto is bracing for coronavirus

Some customers gut local stores of items beyond CDC-recommended measures

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Shoppers stockpile on water at the Costco store in Mountain View on March 2. The store recently saw 958 customers as it opened its doors, the highest count in recent history. Photo by Lloyd Lee.

A quiet anxiety grips Palo Alto and Mountain View as residents face the possibility that the coronavirus will knock on their doors.

The Santa Clara County Public Health Department has identified 20 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus, in the area. And as the number of cases climbs, residents are scouring grocery and drug stores to prepare to bunker down in their homes in case there's an outbreak or they find themselves infected.

Palo Alto resident Monica Hmelar has been searching several retail stores for hand sanitizer. On Monday, she stopped by the Costco store in Mountain View, but the warehouse ran out of everything she needed. One employee announced to customers that record numbers of people have been showing up as the store opens to grab basic necessities like toilet paper and water bottles. On Friday, 958 customers came through the store as it opened, the highest customer count in recent history, according to the employee.

"They told me to come back tomorrow at 9 a.m. when they'll have toilet paper," Hmelar, 52, said. "So I'm gonna be here at 9 a.m. to buy toilet paper."

None of Hmelar's family knows she's at Costco stockpiling for an outbreak — "They're probably thinking I'm crazy," she said — as the virus looms dangerously close to them.

Hmelar's youngest daughter is a senior at Palo Alto High School, where one student was sent home on Friday after the school district learned that the student's parent had been exposed to the virus, prompting the district to disinfect the campus. (The parent also has a child who attends JLS Middle School and who was also sent home on Friday as a precaution.)

And Hmelar's oldest daughter had recently traveled to Florence, Italy, before jetting off to London after receiving alarming news about the increasing spread and death tolls from the virus. On the same day the school district announced a parent was exposed to the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised Italy to a warning level 3, advising the public to "avoid all nonessential travels" to the country where the coronavirus has killed more than 50 people and resulted in about 2,000 confirmed cases.

"I'm kind of freaking out about the whole thing," she said. "And when I come to the stores it's not helping."

Retailers all over the Midpeninsula are rushing to restock shelves to meet the specific demands of anxious customers like Hmelar — such as hand sanitizers, masks and gloves — all of which have been flying off the shelves of local stores and online marketplaces. Many also have purchased freeze-dried goods and cough syrup.

"I ordered the masks," Hmelar said. "They're selling them on eBay for up to $1,000 dollars. I found some guy in South Carolina — a box of 10 for $100 dollars."

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued a public plea over the weekend asking people to stop stockpiling masks. The Feb. 29 post on Twitter reads: "Seriously people - STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!"

The World Health Organization has information on how and when to use masks here.

Though masks and hand sanitizers are increasingly hard to purchase, stores around Palo Alto don't exactly look like they've been hit by an apocalypse. Most of their shelves are fully stocked and continue to be refilled as more shipments arrive.

But inside places such as the Mountain View Costco, the neighboring REI, Palo Alto's Whole Foods as well as Town & Country Village's CVS Pharmacy and Trader Joe's, the unease of the community can be seen in the empty pockets of certain aisles that once stored rows of pasta sauces, canned tuna, toilet paper, freeze-dried mashed potatoes and zinc lozenges.

"It's just happening all in real time," said Michelle Kraus, a tech executive and political strategist who had just finished shopping at Whole Foods. "I don't know if I'm scared, but I'm uncomfortable. I'm the kind of person who needs information to decide what I can do."

To prepare for an outbreak, Kraus is stocking up on travel-sized hand sanitizers and zinc lozenges, an item that's curiously out of stock in some stores. The lozenges became popular after a pathologist's letter that instructed people to "stock up now" went viral.

The CDC does not list zinc lozenges as a protection against the coronavirus and there is no antiviral treatment available.

At Country Sun Natural Foods on California Avenue in Palo Alto, CEO Scott Otte also noticed his store was hit by an influx of concerned customers clearing out the inventory of pasta, rolled oats, disinfectant wipes and alcohol-free hand sanitizers. (The CDC only recommends the public use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if water and soap are not an immediate option.)

"We definitely got a run over the weekend," Otte said. "Our sales were about 20% higher than normal for a Sunday, and Sundays are already a busy day."

Otte chuckled with a little resignation as he thought about the prospect of closing his store — "a last ditch effort" that he would only consider if he's instructed to or if too many employees get sick.

"Sales have to be very, very low before it's not worth being open," he said. "There's rent and electricity to keep everything cold. Those are fixed costs regardless if we're open or not."

Abene Mendizabal, a Stanford University resident and mother of two, refuses to panic even as she works in the tourism industry, which has been directly affected by the virus through travel restrictions.

"I'm not doing anything because I already went through so many health issues in my life — I need to keep calm," she said while outside of Whole Foods after a routine shopping trip. "That's why I bought Champagne."

Stanford Law professor Michelle Mello, who also teaches health research and policy, doesn't see the need for people to purchase tubs of hand sanitizer, but believes the best measure is for people to carefully listen to their local public health department.

"We have excellent local leadership, and what they're saying is that we should be ready for life to be disrupted for a little while," she said. "That's not the same as panicking, but it's sensible for families to have a plan in place. If they're asked to stay in their homes for a couple of weeks to rule out an infection, will they be able to do that? In the same way we prepare for earthquakes, we should prepare for this foreseeable risk."

To prevent further spreading of the virus, the county's Public Health Department recommends taking the same precautionary measures as one would against any viral flu or infection: Wash your hands with soap; use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when hand-washing isn't available; cover your mouth with a tissue and properly dispose of it; stay home if you're sick; and start preparing your household in case a family member gets sick and needs to be isolated.

To find more updates from the city of Palo Alto on the coronavirus, visit cityofpaloalto.org.

Read our latest updates on local coronavirus cases here.

Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by the Almanac, Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Online here.


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16 people like this
Posted by CERT
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 3, 2020 at 11:57 am

As a volunteer with Palo Alto's Community Emergency Response Team I encourage residents to refresh their emergency supplies each year.

Palo Alto's Office of Emergency Services has resources available on their web site: Web Link

Hopefully we won't see large numbers ill with Covid-19 but this does serve as a reminder to review our disaster preparedness plans.

25 people like this
Posted by Encouraging panick behavior is not helpful.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2020 at 12:30 pm

Stay well rested and nourished. Try not to touch your face.

WASH YOUR HANDS frequently, and do it right. Lather up for as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday twice." Wash both sides of your hands and your fingers carefully. Rinse carefully.

Avoid crowds, if possible, but don't freak out about being around people.

Sneeze/cough into a tissue or your sleeve (if you must) but not your hands.

Old-fashioned soap and water is an excellent defense if you do it right.

Don't go out and infect others if you feel sick.

These are good habits all of the time. This virus gives us reason to practice better, healthy daily habits.

17 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 3, 2020 at 12:59 pm

Individuals and families who have planned ahead should have everything they need in their current disaster/earthquake kit.

When an epidemic occurs it is too late to get the things that you should already have.

49 people like this
Posted by Confused
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 3, 2020 at 1:03 pm

I'm confused. Why are people buying water? Water will still flow, and the virus is spread from person to person, not through the tap. Even if someone has the virus on their hand and puts their hand in an aqueduct, it wouldn't "infect" the water. This is not a water-borne illness.

Please, let's be a little more thoughtful about this and stop wasting huge amounts of plastic. And if you're stocking up on water bottles in case of a quarantine, meaning you always drink bottled water, stop. JUST STOP. Water bottles are one of the worst environmental catastrophes of our time. Enough already. It's almost all tap water, anyway.

9 people like this
Posted by Disaster survivor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2020 at 1:31 pm

I agree with you about the environmental waste of plastic, but I have to be honest that after losing my home in a natural disaster some years ago, I haven't found anything better to replace it for emergency supplies. I try to slowly rotate and actually use the water bottles so it doesn't go to waste, but I've tried so many other ways to maintain a stock of emergency water (like large 5 gal jugs with bleach to disinfect, etc etc), and nothing has been as workable as the bottled water. I've even considered canned water.

But, like you, I"m wondering why people are buying water for this. That said, I don't think it's a bad thing that people are finally getting around to prepare for earthquakes....

14 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 3, 2020 at 1:33 pm

[Post removed.]

23 people like this
Posted by Nick
a resident of another community
on Mar 3, 2020 at 1:39 pm

People are buying water, etc. because they're panicking. Panicking is ridiculous, and it makes the situation worse. Use good judgment.

15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2020 at 1:52 pm

People arrive and live in Palo Alto from all over the State, all over the country and yes, all over the world.

Of course they have the right to go back home for a visit. Nobody should blame anyone for wanting to visit parents, family in Oregon, Orlando or the Old World.

Stop this guilt tripping those who choose to visit elsewhere. They may be the bike riding, vegan food eating, volunteering individuals who help those who need help in emergencies or give large amounts to help homeless or underprivileged charities.

Guilt tripping and being judgmental is never a good idea, after all, you might have lots to be criticized of yourself.

40 people like this
Posted by Screeedek
a resident of Stanford
on Mar 3, 2020 at 1:54 pm

OK, you lemmings can go out and buy all the masks, water (wait, what?), throat lozenges (huh?) and hand sanitizer that you feel you need, but can you at least save me a roll or two of toilet paper? Thank you.

10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2020 at 1:55 pm

Panic buying of items is being done by every demographic, toilet paper, hygiene products and foods. The only people not doing it is the poor, they don't have the money or the credit to do so.

19 people like this
Posted by Humble observer
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 3, 2020 at 2:51 pm

"Palo Alto resident Monica Hmelar has been searching several retail stores for hand sanitizer."

Um, does Palo Alto Resident Monica Hmelar understand that the active ingredient in common "hand sanitizer" lotions is alcohol? And that germicidal alcohols are sold in other forms too at the same stores (possibly even more effective and less expensive, though less convenient), such as "rubbing" alcohol? Don't people learn about things like this any more?

In a pinch, high-proof potable spirits such as vodka or rum will also disinfect hands (though those products are far more expensive).

The article implies a stubborn search for one particular form of disinfectant alcohol, and doesn't indicate if she looked for any others -- stopped to think -- read any ingredients lists. (But then, it also reports a stubborn pursuit of face masks, despite quoted advice to the contrary from the Surgeon General.) Epidemiologists, for 10-20 years -- ever since SARS and H5N1 fears -- have urged people to have the masks at home, in advance, in case of epidemics exactly like this one. After the epidemic hits IS NOT THE TIME to go looking for face masks.

7 people like this
Posted by Fairmeadow drinking
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 3, 2020 at 4:01 pm

Many popular vodka and rum brands sold in around here are 40% alcohol. You need to be at least 60% alcohol (120 proof) to be effective.

10 people like this
Posted by Eat/Cook At Home!
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 3, 2020 at 4:02 pm

This all makes sense. Dining out increases your exposure to potential carriers of colds, flus, coronavirus & food poisoning.

Eat & cook at home. Develop new culinary skills. The bay area area already has far too many restaurants & if 50% of the mediocre ones went out of business due to quality home cooking practices & virus concerns...no big loss.

11 people like this
Posted by Laura
a resident of another community
on Mar 3, 2020 at 8:40 pm

If you're not immunocompromised or don't have a chronic illness, stop buying masks. Hospitals will run out. And what will I and other cystic fibrosis patients do when we truly need the masks?

7 people like this
Posted by Kevin Edwards
a resident of Portola Valley
on Mar 3, 2020 at 8:48 pm

Water wasn't on the top of my list of things to stock up on, but here's why it made sense:
Those cases of water from Costco are $2.99 (at least when I bought my cases the other week). That allows us to stock up very cheaply. And they can be used or donated (come fire season).

Now we're prepared in case a water main breaks and there's nobody able or willing to fix it in the area we live in. Additionally, we could have a plumbing issue in our house, and either we're under quarantine or there are no plumbers available.

What are the chances that something will happen which will require the water being shut off in the next 6 months? Well, using past history for us, it's about 25%

The bottom line here is that it was ridiculously cheap, easy to obtain, critical to life, and while it's likely that it won't be used, it can be easily consumed or donated.

17 people like this
Posted by think twice before you write?
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 4, 2020 at 6:20 am

> stop buying masks. Hospitals will run out


Yup, just the other day, down at Ace Hardware, I saw a Stanford truck stocking up on masks for the medical center.

Uh-huh. C'mon folks.

3 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 4, 2020 at 7:29 am

I have 10 concerts on sale at Mitchell Park Community Center, between March 6 and May 3, so best case scenario I will be sharing some incredible musical experiences (and escape from tension) with 2,000 of my neighbors and freinds and fellow travelers (dancers, singers, people moved to near ecstasy by sound and sight).
Worst case scenario: I will refund all no-shows for people who are feeling under the weather. I will be renegotiating all 10 shows, mostly via the agents -- I want to ensure that if a performer feels under the weather, he or she will rather reschedule than appear in Palo Alto.
For me this whole issue is an opportunity to develop my relationships with artists and audiences, and something to build on moving forward. The show must go on, but only in a safe healthy and fun environment.

I presume personally I will get a cold and then get over it. (I won't work if I'm sick -- I will either have a sub run the show or maybe cancel and refund -- It could be slightly different deal with each headliner, for each date, but I will have a plan going forward).

I presume many Palo Altans and Californians will get this virus but few will die of this. Fewer than 2 percent.
God bless.
God bless you.

Keep on rockin' in the free world.
Mark Weiss
Earthwise Productions of Palo Alto
(indirectly speaking for The Mother Hips, Akira Tana, Jenny Scheimnan, Alison Miller, AJ Lee, Sullivan Tuttle, Wayne Horvitz, Lisa Mezzacappa, Marcus Shelby,Valerie Troutt, Tiffany Austin, Mike "that1guy" Siliverman, The Dartmouth Coast Jazz Orchestra, Motoko Honda, Laura Veirs, Myra Melford, Liberty Ellman, Ron Miles, Rudy Royston et al)

I've had the experience of being CURED by live music at a concert.
I'll be constantly updating these policies based on what goes on with Stanford Live, The Sharks, SXSW, Fox Theatre Oakland, The Fillmore, et cetera. And yes, I noted that David Packard shuttered his theatre.

We've been selling, thru 15 events so far in the last year and a half, 80 percent of our tickets via EventBrite and so it's really easy to issue updates on cancellations (one so far, last fall) or refunds.

5 people like this
Posted by Oh well...
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 4, 2020 at 9:34 am

All is not yet lost. Stay calm during this media driven hysteria and all will be well.
"Encumbered by idiots we pressed on"

7 people like this
Posted by Humble observer
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 4, 2020 at 10:51 am

Fairmeadow: Alcohol is germicidal at any concentration, but less effectively outside the range 60% to 90%. A bigger issue is that it's more useful against bacteria than viruses -- to kill viruses, longer contact is needed -- hand washing is probably a better strategy in general anyway.

Everclear [TM] is sold here at 120 proof (60% alcohol). 151-proof rum is available in the same California beverage shops, a few shelves away.

I'd bet rum, brandy, or other "brown" spirits are more effective improvised sanitizers than vodkas anyway (in an emergency, the only time you'd use such a costly alcohol source for this purpose), because they also include natural congeners such as acetaldehyde and ethyl acetate that are part of those spirits' more complex flavor, and contribute germicidal action of their own. Of course, avoid sweetened cordials like creme-de-menthe, which contain not only less alcohol usually, but lots of sugar -- they'd make a sticky mess.

10 people like this
Posted by My CORONA!
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 4, 2020 at 2:52 pm

Some of the middle school aged children in our neighborhood found an old CD with the song 'My Sharona' & they are now drafting new lyrics for their own version to be auditioned for an upcoming talent show.

Adorable & funny!

8 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 4, 2020 at 5:37 pm

Just wondering, how does the word "Champagne" fits into this story?
Champagne is traditionally used in association with celebrations.
This situation is extremely serious.
It has caused deaths, sickness, chaos, and financial ruin for many - worldwide.
The word "Champagne" should be removed from the title.

7 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 5, 2020 at 1:53 am

@Parent, this is a human-interest story. Toward the bottom is a quote from Stanford resident: "I need to keep calm," she said while outside of Whole Foods after a routine shopping trip. "That's why I bought Champagne."

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