GRAND FORKS — Nearly 40 shoppers cued up at the Grand Forks Sam’s Club Wednesday morning, March 11, waiting for a supply truck to drop off a shipment of toilet paper at the store.

Over the past few days, “panic buying” spurred by COVID-19 fears has depleted supplies of items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer at stores in the greater Grand Forks area, and customers from miles away had come into town to be first in line for the next truckload.

Shoppers passing the line were surprised to see what they had only heard of online playing out at a store in their community.

"I thought it was crazy, I really thought it was a joke," said customer Lori Lizotte. "All the stuff on Facebook I didn't really believe. And when I turned the corner — there it is."

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Some shoppers waiting for the shipment said they won't be leaving home if coronavirus comes to the Red River Valley and are spending hundreds of dollars stocking up on supplies now as a precaution.

"I just want to make sure that we're taking every preventive (measure) we can," said Nancy Mitzel, a shopper from Minto who made the 30-mile journey south to pick up supplies in Grand Forks. "We've been stocking up on toilet paper, Kleenex, paper plates, some canned goods, hand sanitizer — which we finally found here in town, which shocked me."

Supply runs had cleared shelves of items like hand sanitizer and toilet paper earlier this week at Target in Fargo, and the Target in Grand Forks has also seen its toilet paper supply stretched thin.

Mass-purchases of essential supplies at stores amid fears of a disaster, known as panic buying, can be alarming, but it doesn’t necessarily mean there are actual supply shortages, according to University of North Dakota economics department chair David Flynn.

A reader submitted this photo of the toilet paper aisle at the Target in Fargo.
A reader submitted this photo of the toilet paper aisle at the Target in Fargo.

"In all likelihood tomorrow, the day after, another truck will arrive at a grocery store or a big box store with the very product you're looking to buy at this time," he said.

And while there was a large toilet paper line at Sam’s Club in Grand Forks on Wednesday, many other customers said they think fears are overblown.

"It reminds me of Y2K,” said shopper Laura Evenson. “People stocked up on gasoline and stuff thinking the world was going to end. It doesn't (and) I'm not here to do that."

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