Low on food, blizzard-weary St. John's shoppers head straight to supermarkets

Low on food, blizzard-weary St. John's shoppers head straight to supermarkets

It was barely 8 a.m. when long lineups formed outside grocery stores in St. John's on Tuesday, many of them growing to queues of hundreds by the time the stores opened at 10 a.m.

By 10:30 a.m., some had already run out of essential items like bread.

It was the first chance for people in the city to buy food since eastern Newfoundland was hammered by a powerful winter storm and stores remained closed under a state of emergency.

On Tuesday — the fifth day of a state of emergency in St. John's — the city amended its restrictions to allow grocery stores and pharmacies to open until 6 p.m.

The City of St. John's announced on Tuesday evening that shops can operate the same on Wednesday, with the addition of taxis being allowed to take to the streets full time.

"We've been outside since about quarter after nine, but I'm not sure how it will be for the people at the end of the line," said customer Holly Delaney. "People are still being really calm and helpful, and no one is being mad or upset."

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

By 11 a.m., some locations had begun closing doors and turning people away to clear out the lineups inside the store.

Pat Griffin, who was waiting in line for an hour outside the Stavanger Drive Dominion, said employees quickly started turning people away — shouting from the doors it would be a five-hour wait inside before they could check out.

Some people waited 2½ hours inside the stores to reach the checkout. Staff members at Sobeys handed out water to customers while they stood in line.

The city told people to get enough food to last 48 hours, suggesting the state of emergency will continue as crews clean up after a record-smashing blizzard on Friday.

Peter Cowan/Twitter
Peter Cowan/Twitter

Pictures from inside a different Dominion location show a picked-over dairy aisle. In the snack section, the chips had been mostly reduced to Cheetos and corn chips.

Donna Robbins described the lineup as "madness," and said you couldn't even force your way around the store.

"You just had to stay behind and wait until you got your turn to get your hands into the cooler to pull out something," she said. "Basically it's just grab and go."

Joe White was at Bidgoods, a small grocery store in the Goulds neighbourhood of St. John's, with his wife before the store opened. He figured it would be past 11 a.m. before they got inside.

"By the end of the day there won't be anything left [in] any of the stores anywhere in St. John's," White told CBC Radio from the parking lot.

Jen White/CBC
Jen White/CBC

Before the doors opened at Costco, about 200 people were already in line.

David Hurst, who works for a hotel in downtown St. John's, was on the hunt to feed both the hotel guests and staff.

"Milk for cereal, bread for sandwiches … and some supplies to make a nice pot of soup," he said, laughing.

As residents piled onto narrow, snowy streets, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary pleaded with people to carpool and find ways to limit traffic on the roads.

"We want to avoid having a gridlock occur," said Const. James Cadigan. "The roads are still very much in the process of snow removal."

Cabs offered free rides

At least seven cab companies in St. John's did their part to curb the amount of traffic on the road, offering to drive people back and forth to the store for free.

The City of St. John's said they are all on standby for seniors and people with mobility issues after the city lifted a ban on taxis during the state of emergency.

Mayor Danny Breen stressed it was only for people who couldn't otherwise get to the store.

Tom Lambe, manager of City Wide and Bugden, said the cab companies were happy to help.

"This is for people that don't have a vehicle or people, like the elderly, who need to get out and get groceries and a bit of medical supplies, or drugs, medication. They can give us a call," Lambe said.

Shops scrambling to fill shelves

Stores around the city prepared for a hectic day, in some cases placing limits on products, such as Coleman's rule of two loaves of bread per person.

At a Sobeys on Merrymeeting Road, hundreds of people were ready to file into the store before it opened. Milk, eggs and bread were at the top of most grocery lists.

Across town, a different Sobeys location on Ropewalk Lane was closed on Tuesday due to damage from the storm.

Fresh produce might become an issue as its shelf-life is shorter than other items.

There also might be a shortage of chicken, as the stores' primary source is St. John's-based Country Ribbon, which has been closed for the last few days.

Jane Adey/CBC
Jane Adey/CBC

Sobeys had two of its three distribution centres open and were scrambling to restock shelves as fast as possible ahead of Tuesday morning.

"A big problem, obviously, is the amount of snow in our loading docks and loading bays, so we have been working with our dedicated snow removal team to get those cleared," said Sobeys spokesperson Violet MacLeod.

Coleman's also had staff at its locations on Monday night in anticipation of the influx of traffic in the morning.

Convenience stores and pharmacies were also permitted to open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Bars, restaurants and fast-food chains remained closed.

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