Seamart Quality Foods restocked some of its paper products and cleaning supplies Friday, after a Thursday rush left some shelves bare. And they’re still low on some things- flour, for example, is sold out. But another barge will be in Sitka on Monday, as usual. (KCAW/Rose)

Alaska’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 coronavirus was announced on Thursday afternoon (3-12-20). At the same time, a rumor about the Port of Seattle closing down led to a rush on Sitka’s stores.

Andrew Hames is the store director at Seamart Quality Foods. He says he’s seen an uptick in sales in the last week-and-a-half, which he attributes to mounting concerns about the COVID-19 virus, but it wasn’t until around 3:30 P.M. on Thursday (3-13-20) afternoon that the store saw a massive rush. 

“I went down to the sales floor to see what was going on. The front end was just hopping. The cart corral was almost empty,” he said. “So I jumped into a check stand to help out a little bit. And I started listening to the customers around me. Everybody was saying the same thing, that the Port of Seattle was going to be shut down and the barge on its way was the last one that was coming and there wasn’t going to be another one in a while,” says Hames.

“I just thought  ‘Woah, woah woah!’ I haven’t heard anything about this.” 

Hames went back to his desk and did a quick Google search. The Port of Seattle announced Wednesday (3-12-20) that it cancelled some cruise ship sailings, but there was no other news that suggested a major closure. So he posted to the company’s Facebook page. 

“I was worried this was going to keep ramping up,” he says. “People were coming in just filling up carts full of stuff. There was definitely a sense of urgency and a sense of panic,” he said. “But we were able to get through to everybody and things started to calm down around 7 o’clock. People were accepting that this was just a rumor and it wasn’t happening.” 

KCAW News spoke to a representative from the Alaska Marine Lines (who asked not to be named) who confirmed that things are business as usual, and their schedules are running normally. They don’t expect any disruptions to service for Southeast Alaska. If the rumor became fact, and the Port of Seattle DID shut down, it would likely not affect Alaska Marine Lines, as they have their own port facilities.

Still, even though supply lines are not affected, Hames says there is a lot of demand right now for certain products all over the country.

“We are seeing a lot from meetings with our distribution centers and wholesalers that the movement they’re seeing in the Seattle area is just unprecedented, especially for this time of year,” he says. “The amount of inventory they’re going through- cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, a lot of paper products, bottled water. Things of that nature are going to be hard to come by,” he said. “A lot of stores are on allocations where they’re only getting certain amounts of, you know, only two cases per store, just to try to keep it spread around.”

As far as regular goods, Seamart is still able to get pretty much everything. They have more rice, canned vegetables, beans and non-perishables coming in on the next barge. And they’re restocking their shelves as quickly as they can. Hames Corporation CEO Max Rule told KCAW that the store may consider putting limits on purchase of some goods if supplies become more limited- that would be on a case-by-case basis.

Other stores in Sitka are putting limits on how much customers can buy of certain items. Steve Huddleson is the floor manager at True Value. He says they’ve seen a rush on household products. 

“Any product to do with disinfecting and cleaning is really moving quickly off the shelves,” he says. “We wanted to limit the number of purchases per customer, just so everybody’s got an opportunity to get some. So right now we do have a limit of two on the Clorox wipes for example.”

And they’re asking people to limit their purchases of respirators.

“We still have a lot of people out there doing home improvement projects,” he says. “They need respirators, you know, if they’re dealing with paint or chemicals to clean their decks or surfaces. So we do want to make those available for them as well, it’s not only the people that’s wanting to wear the face mask 24 hours-a-day.”

The COVID-19 coronavirus only just arrived in Alaska on Thursday, and it looks like it could be around for at least the rest of flu season. Seamart’s Andrew Hames says they’re ordering more inventory than normal to meet the increased demand. 

“If people come in right now, you’ll be able to walk out with a full cart of groceries. We don’t have any hand sanitizer, but we have most everything else,” he says. “There’s a lot to be stressed about and I don’t want people to be stressed about being able to get groceries.”