Post #670: Shopping report, 4/24/2020

I got a few surprises yesterday as I went out to do my weekly grocery run.

First, I decided to give Whole Foods a try.  But failedThe first surprise is that, around 1 PM yesterday, the parking lot at Whole Foods was filled.  I mean, to the point where, sure, I could have found a spot.  But I would have had to drive around to find one.

Obviously, I did the smart thing and went elsewhere.  Given how narrow the aisles are in that store, and how tight the clearances are in general, I’m surprised that Whole Foods isn’t limiting the number of patrons that they allow in the door.  But as of yesterday, at least from the outside, it looked like any normal busy Saturday morning.  The number of shoppers in the store was only limited by the number of parking places in the lot.

I went to Fresh Market.  And, as illustrated above, there was no such crowding at Fresh Market.  To me, that store has the same narrow, tight-tolerances feel as Whole Foods.  But they take this so seriously, and the shoppers take it so seriously, that there’s never an issue of feeling like I’m taking an unnecessary risk.

That said, either they’ve rescinded their no-mask-no-service policy, or they don’t enforce it.  A couple of clueless twenty-somthings were shopping together, having a nice time, no masks.  While all the codgers like me were masked and totally on-task the entire time.  We clearly live in different worlds.

There were a handful of items that I could not get at Fresh Fields, including items that my wife wanted for her seriously-ill sister.  So I did a second trip, this time to Giant.  Looks like Giant is slowly getting its act together, but only slowly.  And Giant customers are not.

It was a short trip.  Of Giant employees, I only noted one who was not wearing a mask, and that one had a mask, she was just wearing it to cover her mouth only, presumably so she could breath through her nose.  The majority of customers were masked.  But there were plenty of customers, no masks, more-or-less clueless about social distancing, paying no heed to the one-way aisles, and so on.  (Although, to be fair, Giant has not exactly gone out of its way either to highlight that those are one-way, or to enforce that in any way.)

Giant appeared quite well-stocked.  Whatever you may have heard about “meat shortages”, that was clearly not the case there.  Any cut of chicken, any cut of pork, any cut of beet, all the fresh fish you want, and so on.  Pretty much any part of any dead critter that you’d care to eat, they had plenty.

Dairy other than milk was still quite moth-eaten, and I can’t quite figure out why.  In the bourgeoisie cheese section (by the deli), you can get anything you want, in quantity.  But the proletariat’s cheese section (by dairy, other end of the store), it was a harsher world entirely.  You could find something, for sure, but definitely a hit-or-miss affair.  And none too deeply stocked, for what was present.

As an economist, that upscale-versus-downscale disparity made sense, if not equity.  But the cheese-versus-fresh-milk disparity, I can only guess that this is related to the rate of production.  Fresh milk is produced on a flow basis, cheese, yogurts, and similar take weeks to month to produce.  And yet, I’ve read that the US was (and still is!) facing a huge cheese surplus.  I suppose the current state of affairs reflects the lag in cheese production relative to milk.  I just found it to be an odd and rather stark contrast, given that it’s all based on the same raw material.

On the plus side, I finally scored some Tater Tots!  We don’t normally eat processed food like that, but for some reason, my family has taken a shine to Tater Tots during lockdown.  So I’m always happy to stumble across a bag.  It’s odd, what little things will make my day, in this new world.

Addendum:  Why I shop in person.  First, delivery slots remain congested.  Second, I take every precaution, including a proper mask, use of paper towels to avoid touching high-touch surface, and so on.  I do exactly as CDC recommend and wash hands before, upon return, and after putting groceries away.

And third, it’s really not clear whether there’s any risk at all.  That’s because there’s been no intelligent epidemiology that informs us as to where the new coronavirus cases are coming from.  (Other than cases attributable nursing homes.)

Think about the spaces in which you might plausibly catch coronavirus:

  1. Within your home (from a family member)
  2. In a public shopping area.
  3. In a public dining area.
  4. In a public outdoor recreation area.
  5. In a public indoor personal-services or recreation area (gym, hair salon).
  6. In a non-public shared work area (office, factory)
  7. In institutional congregate living area (nursing home, prison, etc.)

We have good information 7 (nursing homes and prisons are high risk).

The Chinese experience suggested that the tail-end of the spread was mainly in 1 (within-family spread should be the last observed spread of cases).

We have piecemeal data on 6 (workplace), but only when there is some spectacular event (or string of events) such as has occurred at meat-packing plants.

But what your risks are, in those various public areas 2-5 (shopping dining, outdoor recreation, indoor recreation and personal services), nobody so far has given you even the faintest hint.  And that’s exactly what you’d like to know, as various states begin to re-open those area to a greater or lesser extent.

Plausibly, if aerosol transmission is a common mechanism (see front page for explanation), nobody ever will do that, because standard CDC-type contact tracing likely will not identify cases spread via aerosol transmission from asymptomatic individuals.  If so, those cases of infection will remain attributed to “community” (i.e., unknown-source) infection, and the CDC or state health department will never be able to give you even the faintest clue as to how safe or dangerous those areas actually are.

That’s a fundamentally poor way to go about making your personal safety decisions.  Let alone making state-level decisions on what to reopen, when.  But the world is what it is.