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Household necessities such as toilet paper and disinfecting wipes have seemingly disappeared from store shelves amid the rise of confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

The phenomenon known as "panic buying" has retailers scrambling to replenish their inventory — straining the product supply chain, generating growing anxiety for consumers and frustrating shopkeepers, said Alex Baloga, the CEO for the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association.

"Certain products are being purchased in such a large quantity — you don't need 30 packages of toilet paper for one person," Baloga said. "It's really created a hole that (retailers) are trying to fill."

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While Target, Walmart and Weis Markets didn't provide specific timelines for when customers should see more toilet paper on the shelves, shipments of high demand products have been ordered and are on their way to York County, said representatives for the retailers.

"We are working to replenish those items quickly, including diverting products to areas of the country where they are needed most and routing deliveries directly to stores," a statement from Walmart reads. 

Additionally, several of the biggest retail chains have implemented policies that limit the number of products each customer can buy. 

At Target, customers are limited to one package of disinfectant wipes and toilet paper. 

"The racks are totally empty," said Beth Staub, who was shopping Monday at Target in West Manchester Township. "When I walked in and I saw people had (toilet paper) in their cart, I thought I should probably get some just to be on the safe side."

Staub, of Wellsville, said she hasn't seen toilet paper on store shelves in a week and that the hysteria created by the coronavirus has contributed to more people purchasing products.

"I guess they're afraid they're going to be stuck in their homes, and maybe they don't want to make too many trips out," she said. "Why they have five and six packs, I'm not sure."

Panic buying hasn't just affected household goods, however.

Dennis Curtin, a spokesman for Weis Markets, said there's been "significant" demand for food products, including milk and bread. 

"While we are sending additional shipments, there remains tremendous demand for these products, and it’s a challenge to remain in stock," Curtin said in an email. "To meet this surge in demand, we’re calling in as much extra staff as we can to man registers, unload trucks and stock shelves."

Baloga said the initial surge in buying was "so large" that it's now making the availability of certain items sporadic.

Though he said price gouging has been an issue nationwide, the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association is working closely with the state to ensure stores are compliant.

As of Tuesday morning, the state Attorney General's Office reported receiving more than 1,000 complaints and has issued 28 cease and desist letters ordering businesses to stop price gouging.

Anyone who suspects price gouging can submit a complaint to pricegouging@attorneygeneral.gov.

"The items we have received price gouging complaints about are necessities — cleaning supplies and toilet paper," a statement from Attorney General Josh Shapiro's office said. "AG Shapiro’s Office will take legal action if these companies and distributors don’t stop these practices."

Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday afternoon declared a state of emergency, urging the closure of all “nonessential businesses” in the state after the number of COVID-19 cases climbed to 76. That number jumped to 96 on Tuesday, according to the state Health Department. 

Liquor stores were ordered closed as of Tuesday night by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. 

Kathy Kaufman joined dozens of other residents who flocked to local liquor stores to make some last-minute purchases in light of the recent declaration. She bought a couple of bottles of wine to keep at home for herself and her husband.

"We do enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings, so we wanted to keep that going," Kaufman, of East Prospect, said. "Just in case we really can't go out and do anything, we'll go ahead and stock up now."

— Reach Tina Locurto at tlocurto@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.

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