Why Rationing Food Instead of Raising Prices Could Be Exposing More People to COVID-19

Jonathan Miltimore – April 11, 2020

As we approach the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House is advising Americans to go into full lockdown mode, even avoiding grocery stores and pharmacies.

“The next two weeks are extraordinarily important,” said Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, in a press conference held Saturday. “This is the moment to not be going to the grocery store, not going to the pharmacy, but doing everything you can to keep your family and your friends safe.”

The novel coronavirus, which has so far officially infected more than 450,000 Americans (the actual total is no doubt exponentially larger) and resulted in nearly 17,000 US deaths, is expected to peak over the next two weeks. So advising people to stay home when possible is prudent advice.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, however, especially for larger families.

As the father in a household of five, I find myself making more trips to the grocery store than ever. This is strange, because for the first time we’re also having groceries delivered to our home every other week from Costco.

Now, I don’t particularly like grocery shopping even when there’s no deadly virus circulating that survives on surfaces for days and can apparently be breathed in by talking to people. I like this even less when grocery stores seem more crowded than usual. (More on that later.)

However, it’s astonishing how much my little family consumes each week when we’re stuck at home day after day.

We go through a gallon of milk every day or two and a carton of eggs every two or three. As it happens, these are also items that are being rationed at the local Cub Foods where we shop. Like most grocery stores, instead of allowing prices of scarce items to rise to prevent overconsumption, the store has opted to limit the number of items consumers can purchase.

This means that several times a week I’m making a trip to the store to buy more eggs and milk, though while there I naturally replenish a few other food items: fresh meat, fish, ice cream (a quarantine staple), bread, etc.

Could we do without these items from time to time? Of course. And perhaps we will during the peak season if we decide those trips do not warrant the risk of COVID-19 exposure. For me, rationing is a minor inconvenience, since my family is relatively small and we have delivery options with our Costco membership.

Many families, however, are in a different situation than mine. Perhaps they can’t afford delivery or don’t have a Costco membership. Perhaps they have six kids, not three. Many probably have little choice but to make extra trips to the grocery store.

It occurred to me that perhaps this is why grocery stores seem busier than usual. Or was I just imagining that?

I decided to look at the numbers and talk to some people. It turns out foot traffic in grocery stores is up considerably in the wake of the coronavirus.

A Business Insider article published March 18 cited data from Foursquare showing that while traffic in most industries has plummeted, foot traffic in grocery stores has surged during the pandemic.

This could have been the result of “panic-buying,” of course, but one would expect that traffic to dip off eventually. It hasn’t, at least not all the way. I spoke to multiple grocery store owners in Minnesota and Wisconsin who told me that foot traffic in stores nearly doubled for a time. It has since tapered off, but it’s still 20-30 percent higher than usual.

A more recent report from Forbes also shows a spike in grocery store traffic.

“Data is telling us in general supermarket traffic has increased,” said Ethan Chernofsky, vice-president of marketing at Placer.ai.

Again, why?

It could be because people are antsy and just feel like getting out, even during a pandemic. Humans are social by nature, and with all the theaters, gyms, and restaurants closed, some may be feeling the urge to leave their home and grocery shop.

It could also be related to the fact that so many restaurants are closed (though one would expect this to result in more grocery purchasing, not necessarily increased foot traffic).

Both those explanations are plausible, but I think it’s likelier the majority of people are going out for the same reason I am: they need to get stuff and can’t get as much of what they need because of limits.

By rationing food items to prevent hoarding instead of letting prices rise naturally, stores make it more difficult for consumers to stock up for a week or two. As a result, they are making more trips to the grocery store than they otherwise would, undermining the quarantine that is supposed to be protecting them.

If the thesis is correct, it would expose yet another unintended consequence of anti-price gouging laws—and a deadly one.

As USA Today reports, even during normal times grocery stores are germ hives. One 2017 study found that grocery store shopping carts had more colony-forming bacteria per square inch than bathroom surfaces. (To be fair, the grocery stores I’ve visited are attempting to mitigate this by sanitizing carts after each use.)

Food rationing might sound more reasonable than “price gouging,” but we know it comes with seen and unseen consequences, as all things do. As the economist Thomas Sowell famously observed, there are no solutions, only trade-offs.

If millions of Americans are making more trips to the grocery because of anti-price gouging laws or sentiment, it would be a sad irony.

By attempting to protect consumers from higher prices, anti-price gouging practices might be increasing exposure to one of the deadliest viruses in generations.

Originally published at Fee.org. Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of FEE.org. His writing/reporting has appeared in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, and Fox News. 

Image credit: Anna Shvets from Pexels

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