It was a busy day to say the least at Yellowknife grocery stores Saturday as residents left store shelves empty in preparation of a feared outbreak of COVID-19.

The territorial government has yet to report of any confirmed cases in the NWT as of Saturday morning, and still insists the risk to NWT residents of acquiring the virus remains low but that didn’t stop them from preparing for the worst.

The GNWT and the federal government have recommended people, “stock up on essentials but avoid panic buying.”

“The reason for storing extra items is not necessarily because you will need to self-isolate,” reads a GNWT recommendation. “Having these supplies on hand will ensure you do not need to leave your home at the peak of the outbreak or if you become ill.”

Justin Nelson, general manager of Yellowknife Direct Co-op, stands beside a near empty shelf Saturday afternoon. He said he began the day around 10 a.m. filling the shelf with six large pellets of toilet paper rolls. Within hours those rolls were gone. Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

Both the GNWT and the feds recommend filling cupboards with non-perishable items and easy-to-prepare foods as well as extra stores of pet food, toilet paper, facial tissue, feminine hygiene products and diapers.

Toilet paper was among those items that were clearly sold out by mid-afternoon at major locations in the city. Several passersby spotted by NNSL Media stared incredulously at the empty shelves, expressing some frustration while others laughed.

At the Yellowknife Direct Co-op store, general manager Justin Nelson said it has been the busiest he has seen it since he began working there in 2003.

“As far as food it is very busy and we brought in extra food in the store a couple of weeks ago,” he said during a coffee break Saturday. “We have obviously been going through that right now. 

“The store is very busy and I would say it is even busier than Christmas at this juncture.”

Nelson said the situation grocery stores are facing across the country could be comparable to other jurisdictions that face natural disasters.

“You hear things like this -where we are going to order and not be able to get product because every other store in Canada is trying to get this thing,” he said, noting that this is a situation faced by most grocery stores in Canada. “If shelves are going bare or (people are) freaking out, it is like in Florida when a hurricane hits.”

Nelson said the big items that seem to be flying off the shelves are anti-bacterial items such as hand sanitizers and wipes as well as soaps, cleaning supplies and bleaches. As has been the case across the country, toilet paper has been going off the shelves extremely quickly, he noted.

Store shelves at Glen’s Independent Grocer downtown were spotless when it came to toilet paper mid-Saturday afternoon. Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo
Toilet paper stocks were empty at Shoppers Drug Mart by mid-afternoon on Saturday although it appeared there were more paper products like Kleenex and paper towels. Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

A truck with supplies came into the co-op warehouse on Saturday at about 10 a.m. and among them was the bathroom tissue. Within hours they were mostly bought up, said Nelson. 

“We had six pallets today and these were big pallets – not itty-bitty – pretty much eight to nine foot pallets,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that when it comes toilet paper considering other things you could use. It is just volumes that are shocking.”

He said each pallet probably has about 150 to 200 packets of toilet rolls.

Over the past week, he estimated the store has gone through about one tractor trailer of toilet paper.

Nelson said trucks will be arriving again with food and other supplies Tuesday night and there will also be additional trailers on Wednesday through Saturday to help the store keep up with supplies.

If possible, there will be extra loads but that will be based on what the warehouse can supply and I would expect all of the companies like Kraft and others will be stepping up production,” he said. 

Uptown at Trevor’s Independent Grocery store, toilet paper shelves were empty. There were accompanying signs that stated that there was a limit of two paper products to be sold to each customer.
Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

“We will have to make sure our employees are compensated for overtime as we make sure shelves are stocked up the best we can.

Nelson said as for the 120 full and part-time employees at the store, he is ensuring that they are as safe as can be, noting that staff are wearing gloves as a precaution and handles and surfaces are regularly wiped down to combat germs. 

Nelson was not in a stressed mood Saturday and was able to keep his humour. He was encouraging shoppers to also retain their patience and to try and relax.

My biggest thing is that our staff are doing the best we can to get things out to the floor,” he said, asking people to show patience and to be nice as possible to retailers.

“I can’t imagine people will continue buying as much as they have been buying because where could they be putting it? I think it will soon get back to normal.” 


NNSL Media reached out to Glen’s Independent Grocery Store as well as Trevor’s Independent Grocery Store on Saturday. Both recommended contacting the Loblaws’ corporate public relations firm outside of the NWT.

A sign was on display at several locations throughout the uptown Trevor’s which read “To Our Valued Customers: We have a limited paper supply. In an effort to ensure all customers have access, all paper products will be a limit of 2 per customer.”

Nelson said his store was not following this practice because it would mean that his workers would have to police customers and it was added stress that they didn’t need.

A sign was seen in both the front lobby of Trevor’s Independent Grocery Store and in the aisles indicating that there was a limit of paper products to be sold to each customer.
Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

Messages were also left with Canadian Tire, but co-owner Karen Butorac directed Yellowknife to corporate communications in Ontario.

Messages were also left with Shoppers Drug Mart and Luluz Market, but received no response by the end of Saturday.



Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. Simon can be reached at...

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