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With omicron surge, Baltimore retailers scramble to fill shifts, stock sometimes empty shelves

When Adriene Boone went to the Giant in Catonsville to grocery shop for the week, she found “not even one bag of spinach” in the produce section. A few days later, she tried her luck at the nearby Wegmans. They had fruits and vegetables but hardly any meat or dairy.

In the wake of back-to-back snowstorms and the surge in COVID-19 cases that has sickened workers at every level of the supply chain, shoppers around the Baltimore area are finding grocery stores short of basic goods. Even as customers like Boone have become used to occasional shortages during the past two years, the past few days have been exceptional.

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“This week it seemed very reminiscent of the early stages of the pandemic when everyone was going into mass hoarding mode, like ‘We don’t know what this is, buy everything,’” said Boone, a 37-year-old Windsor Mill resident. “It’s really odd.”

The pandemic’s latest twist — the highly contagious omicron variant — has brought new challenges to Baltimore-area retailers and consumers. Grocers, drugstores and mass discounters have been forced in recent weeks to temporarily shorten hours, scramble to fill shelves and even close stores.

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Store staffs, already stretched thin, have taken bigger hits as more workers test positive for COVID-19 and must quarantine.

Faced with strong demand, businesses serving essential needs such as food, medicine and other goods are scrambling to fill shifts. They’re offering more overtime or taking steps such as shortening hours or shutting down for days at a time.

The Walmart in Aberdeen closed for two days last week, with officials saying they needed time to sanitize and restock the store. Closing the Philadelphia Boulevard store from Jan. 5 to Jan. 7 was a “proactive measure, based on market-specific data,” said Ashley Nolan, a Walmart spokeswoman.

Nolan did not say whether the temporary shutdown was due to a COVID-19 outbreak among employees, citing privacy reasons. But a rise in positive cases among associates would be consistent with any rise in case counts in the surrounding community, she said. Cases have soared in Harford County since late December, according to the county health department.

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Walgreens closed a store in Baltimore’s Locust Point last week for COVID-related reasons, surprising customers. Karen May, a Walgreens spokeswoman, confirmed the store had closed but said other city locations stepped in and filled prescriptions until the store reopened.

Some Rite Aid stores with workers out because of COVID have cut store hours, said Terri Hickey, a Rite Aid spokeswoman. Hickey did not say how many stores have been impacted or which ones.

“Recognizing these are some of the busiest times we have seen, we recently made the decision company-wide to temporarily close most of our pharmacies one hour early Monday through Fridays to allow our pharmacy teams to catch up from the day and prep for the next,” Hickey said in an email.

The drugstore also temporarily limited walk-in hours for immunizations to one hour a day, starting at 2 p.m., reserving the rest of the day for appointments.

“Everybody from retailers to manufacturers … are having a problem with labor,” said Lisa de Lima, vice president of grocery for MOM’s Organic Market. “Everybody’s got folks calling out left and right.”

She said staff are getting sick from COVID-19 as well as the flu.

India Cochrane restocks lettuce at MOM’s organic market on Tuesday, Jan. 11, after winter storms delayed produce deliveries over the weekend.
India Cochrane restocks lettuce at MOM’s organic market on Tuesday, Jan. 11, after winter storms delayed produce deliveries over the weekend. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

The winter storms compounded worker shortages as road closures in Pennsylvania held up trucks bound for area grocery stores, de Lima said. On Sunday, only nine of MOM’s 21 stores were able to get produce.

But shortages can be self-fulfilling prophecies when customers resort to hoarding, and de Lima warned consumers not to panic.

In contrast to the start of the pandemic, when goods were scarce, the current shortages are mostly driven by transportation issues, de Lima said.

Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for the Food Industry Association, a Washington-based trade group, echoed that view.

“The food is out there — it’s just not in the right place at the right time,” he said. “It’s a confluence of issues. Yes, it is weather-related. Yes, it is omicron-related.”

Omicron, coupled with the flu, is “wreaking havoc” on an already understaffed workforce.

Demand, too, has increased. Before the pandemic many retailers operated with “just-in-time” inventory systems, Baker said, giving them just enough product to get through the day. Now, they are ordering more.

Additionally, weather is causing problems. Baker cited last week’s big snowstorm, which held up delivery trucks on Interstate 95 for over 24 hours.

“Those trucks are missing their delivery windows,” he said, which has ripple effects throughout the supply chain.

Weis Markets spokesman Dennis Curtin also cited the double-barrel effect of COVID-related worker shortages at distribution centers and among truck drivers and last week’s storms, which shut down miles of Interstate 95 south of Washington for 24 hours. The highway, he said in an email, is “a major artery” for produce from Florida.

Other factors at play include disruptions to produce shipments from Chile and the South, which supply stone fruit and grapes during the winter, and a recall of bagged salads that caused what he called a “gap in the market.”

“Our suppliers tell us there will be significant challenges on a fair number of commodities in January,” Curtin said. “But breaks in the weather, the reopening of bagged salad plants, getting through the holiday COVID surge and a stretch of standard weeks (i.e. not Christmas or New Year’s) should improve the situation.”

One bright spot: bananas. The top-selling produce item in the U.S. remains in “good supply,” he said.

On a recent weekend at Giant Food on York Road, the fresh chicken case was picked bare. A note to customers explained select fresh chicken items were temporarily out of stock “due to recent surges in COVID- cases and the resulting labor shortages.”

A Giant spokesman said the prolonged pandemic coupled with recent snowstorms have strained the supply chain.

“There are several challenges all retailers are facing at the moment that have impacted our ability to execute our business to our normal standards,” Giant said in a statement.

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The grocer said it is working with manufacturers to replenish shelves as quickly as possible.

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Jack Kleinhenz, a National Retail Federation economist, said it’s likely the pandemic, fueled by the omicron variant, will continue to bring uncertainty to the economy this year and could contribute to inflation. But, he said, it isn’t likely to cause widespread shutdowns or slowdowns, and he doesn’t expect broad-based lockdowns.

“What we have learned is that each successive variant has slowed down the economy, but that the degree of slowdown has been less,” Kleinhenz said.

Still, some retailers are not expecting a return to normal anytime soon.

Rite Aid said it’s working on long-term initiatives to improve its pharmacists’ workload balance. It’s planning to bring in overnight teams to help with non-customer-facing work such as restocking. And the retailer is aggressively recruiting more pharmacists.

Meanwhile, restaurants that have been reporting problems getting everything from crab meat to rubber gloves are finding their buying headaches worsen.

“It’s definitely a mess, that’s for sure,” said Chad Wells, chef at Walker’s Tap & Table, a restaurant in Howard County’s Glenwood.

Mushrooms have been hard to come by, so has lettuce. He’ll order five cases of produce and receive one. Lately, he’s used a different type of potato to make his restaurant’s French fries.

At the same time, Walker’s Tap & Table is seeing much of its in-person business transition to takeout as more customers choose to stay home during the latest spike in COVID cases.

“We just saw throughout this week a crazy amount of carryout,” he said. “I think people are scared.”

For Wells, the recent issues come after two years of swings in both the availability and cost of ingredients. The price of fryer oil doubled, for example, and “flour is through the roof,” he said.

“You feel like everything’s going to start getting better and all of [athe sudden it’s something else,” Wells said.

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