Amy Mower has food in her dishwasher. Lots of it.

This is funny, but it’s not really a joke.

Such are the times we live in here at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.

“My biggest personal fear is social disruption,” said Mower, who started storing food in her dishwasher when she ran out of space everywhere else. “Like, I think the biggest need that I’m going to have for the pita chips that are in my dishwasher is when the state of Washington says, ‘Don’t leave your house.’ And then I’m going to be really sorry if I don’t have those pita chips.”

Mower is laughing as she talks. But the director of surgical business operations at Harborview Medical Center is also serious as she describes the kinds of decisions we’ve all been making on the fly over the last month as dozens of people have died in our state from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 

Around the first of March, Mower was sure there was no need to stock up on necessities when her husband, Benjamin, brought up the subject. They have different perspectives. His health is compromised, hers is not.

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Benjamin had been watching coverage of the virus’ spread from the beginning as it made its way out of China. He was convinced this would become a problem and was fixated on the news. When he came to Mower to talk about budgeting a trip to the store for a month’s worth of supplies, she was pretty adamant.  

“I’m like, no way!” she said. “No, we’re not doing that. We are not stockpiling for the apocalypse.”

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After three days of briefings at work and watching how the virus was spreading in places like Italy and Iran, she came around to her husband’s point of view.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, OK, here’s a list,’” she said. “If you’re going to go shopping, let me give you some input. I’m going to add to the list because, you know, this might not be a bad idea.”

So now she’s got pita chips in her dishwasher. And spaghetti sauce next to very stackable boxes of noodles, soup, lentils, nuts and trail mix.

While there’s lots of hoarding going on in the area — the empty shelves are pretty universal — this is not it. Mower and her husband are responding reasonably in the face of an unreasonable situation.

Toilet paper and paper towels are in short supply at local grocery stores. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Toilet paper and paper towels are in short supply at local grocery stores. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

“I think everyone has their individual degree of risk they’re prepared to assume — and that’s an individual choice,” said Steven Taylor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. “It’s sensible to have a two-week supply of medication and sanitary items and food. That’s fine. And so I can understand why people would stock up on that. You do that without panicking. You can prepare without panicking.”

Taylor is the author of the timely 2019 book “The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease.” He’s the man with the answers to all those questions you have about weird behavior in emergencies.

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The reason for the baffling instances of toilet paper hoarding is pretty obvious to him, if not the rest of us.

“For me it’s fascinating,” he said. “It might seem weird that people would hoard toilet paper because toilet paper is not going to prevent you from getting infected. I think what’s happening is this is going viral with images of people panic-buying toilet paper.

“Social media has made this pandemic different from other ones in that all these dramatic images of empty shelves and shopping carts spread planetwide in a matter of moments, and that can inflate people’s sense of threat.”

Turns out those colorful, large cubes of toilet paper packages are distinctive and trigger something in our brains.

“In the minds of people, it’s become a symbol of safety, and these symbols, they need not be rational,” Taylor said.

Shoppers have snatched up toilet paper at this Seattle grocery store, too. (Stefanie Loh / The Seattle Times)
Shoppers have snatched up toilet paper at this Seattle grocery store, too. (Stefanie Loh / The Seattle Times)

We’ve seen plenty of irrational behavior, sometimes on TV, but sometimes in real life, too. A skirmish erupted recently at the Costco on Fourth Avenue South in Seattle as employees were unloading a pallet of toilet paper. It was as if the neat stack of white rolls was hit by a swarm of piranhas.

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“You don’t want to go back there,” one woman muttered after being spit out of the crowd.

Nearby, two women loaded their carts with cases of Spam. Two cases each. Then four. Then two more, just in case.

“Everyone take a deep breath!” someone said at the intersection of White Claw Hard Seltzer and Cretors popcorn. 

“There’s not enough beer!” said a man with a ponytail in mock panic as he smiled and shook his head in disbelief.

The crowd quickly headed for the checkout aisles and stacked up there, 10 strong. Tim Clothier, of West Seattle, stood in the long line and shrugged. He came in for black ink for his printer and became trapped. 

He makes a weekly trip to the store for food and office supplies. Nothing major. No drama.

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But this?

“I’ve never seen this before,” he said. “Only in pictures. Seven, eight deep? You usually walk right up to the register.”

The store had been open for 37 minutes.

Costco shoppers load up their cars. People are stocking up, preparing to hunker down to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Costco shoppers load up their cars. People are stocking up, preparing to hunker down to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Grocery and big-box store employees see scenes like these every day. Taylor says that sort of activity is hardwired into our genetic makeup. The fear of disease, he said, is closely linked with the emotion of disgust.

Disgust is very useful, evolutionarily speaking. It keeps us from, say, eating rotten meat or playing with poop.

“Toilet paper is like the antidote to disgust,” Taylor said. “Toilet paper is a tool to help you avoid disgusting things. So I think that might be one reason why toilet paper has become a prized possession that people are carrying around. It’s like a good-luck charm. I know there are people who hoard toilet paper and then they’ll be a shopping and happen to see a roll and go, ‘Oh, I’ll take another one of these,’ because it makes them feel safe.”

The emotional response is so strong that (usually) even-keeled souls can be drawn into events. Bonnie and Jim Namba, for instance, stopped by the Greenwood Fred Meyer on a recent Saturday, even though they didn’t really need to. 

Both had experienced shortages in their jobs. Bonnie works in promotional sales, putting company logos on things like little 1-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer. Jim works for a plumbing company where the bosses asked him to find sanitizing products for the workers there.

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“The company that I talked to on Thursday had 10,000 (bottles) of several colors in stock,” Bonnie said. “So I wrote my purchase order and sent it to him, and now I can’t get him to answer.”

“We didn’t even try for masks,” Jim said. He checked with his connections around town and got the same answer: “Don’t even bother.”

Stores across Seattle are seeing their shelves go bare quickly and more often as people stock up in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Stores across Seattle are seeing their shelves go bare quickly and more often as people stock up in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

That uncertainty bled over into their personal lives. They didn’t need to go to the grocery store, but …

“We thought we should look — just in case,” Jim said. “We’re a week or two out from when we’d normally restock. But Costco by all reports is decimated, so ….”

The Nambas chose to remain calm in the face of occasional hysteria.

“We could live out of our pantry for years, but I did buy half-and-half for my coffee,” Bonnie said. “I can’t live without half-and-half.”

The reality is the zombie apocalypse is probably not coming. The dystopian stories full of vigilantism and pandemonium that Hollywood has been feeding us don’t often reflect real life.

“That’s not what has happened in previous pandemics,” Taylor said. “People pulled together, there’s been altruism. There’s been people helping each other out. And I’m hoping that that’s going to happen this time around. The people will pull together and realize, ‘Oh, I need to think beyond just my family. I need to help out my neighbor who’s too sick to go and shop for herself,’ and things like that. So if this is anything like previous outbreaks, there should be more of that, I hope, naturally arising.”

 

Seattle Times staff reporter Nicole Brodeur contributed to this report.

 

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