A good citizen’s guide to preparing for the second wave 

Can we all agree to keep our cool, and not clean out the pasta aisle?

On Monday, Quebec’s top health official said the province is at the beginning of its second wave for COVID-19 infections. Within two days of the announcement, news started to emerge that Costco locations in Montreal were out of toilet paper.

It begs repeating the refrain we heard from manufacturers back in March: Canada’s toilet paper supply is safe. (Not to mention: increased trips to the toilet are not a common symptom of COVID-19.) But as case counts of the coronavirus rise nationwide, the dreaded second wave of the pandemic appears all but inevitable. In parts of the country, it is under way.

Some advice—like wearing a mask and practising physical distancing—remains constant. But surely we learned lessons from our hoarding and shelf-rushing during the first wave that could spare us frustration and inconvenience during the reprise. Maclean’s reached out to experts to discuss them.

Shop less, shop better

For the first time in 20 years, the average Canadian is visiting the grocery store no more than once a week, says Sylvain Charlebois, the director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who studies food supply and management. Prior to COVID-19, the average was nearly twice a week.

Charlebois says staying with that lone trip each week will help keep folks rational and calm, while helping keep shelves stocked. “If you go more than once,” he adds, “you start buying things you don’t need.”

Know what’s in your kitchen

In March, many Canadians were concerned about stores actually running out of food. There were worries about the supply chain; how safe it was to be out grocery shopping; or whether it was safe to even handle money. (Note: you can use cash. It’s okay.)

Back then, between the long lines and panic buying, it might have felt like the only things left on shelves were limes, frozen pierogies and cauliflower crust pizzaBut with less selection in stores, Charlebois says Canadians engaged in full-scale inventory checks in their own pantries and freezers. Some folks even bought a new freezer just to fit more. 

No one needs to panic buy, we’ve all learned that lesson. But Charlebois suggests Canadians keep up with their food inventory management at home. That way, they can “walk into the grocery store knowing what you need and what you don’t need.”

Know thy supply chains

Now that many folks have proven they can bake their own bread at home during the first lockdown, it bears repeating that supply chains for wheat-based products—like flour or pasta—are fine as long as there is no panic-buying. The country didn’t run out of flour even as some people were suddenly baking hundreds of loaves of bread. Not to mention, flour doesn’t keep indefinitely, so there’s no point in stocking up a year’s supply.

“We’re not going to run out,” said Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta wheat and barley commissions, in an interview in April—back when the pandemic and railway blockades compounded the problem with delays. “The reality is we produce so much wheat, there would have to be a catastrophe for us to not have enough to supply the mills.”

Stay outside while you can

As we’ve learned from the coronavirus over the last nine months, it’s better to be outdoors than indoors. So as the colder weather approaches, says retail consultant Lisa Hutcheson, we can expect a continuation of trends like Canadians buying sporting goods and, well, anything that allows them to stay outside a little longer, such as outdoor heaters for the patio.

Will this cause brief periods of low supply for certain items? Maybe, but they’re not the sort of shortages that severely inconvenience others, and the health upsides are clear.

Think about Christmas now, in September

No one should rush the mall like it’s Black Friday, but Hutcheson suggests people start thinking about Christmas and holiday shopping early this year—like, now. “If you want to avoid lineups.” Even those who order online should think about giving themselves a lot of lead time. 

“Normally at holiday time, people say, ‘I’ll go to this one mall and try to get as many people [as possible] off my list,’” she says. “Think about the way you conduct your shopping so you don’t have to go out many times.”

Hoarding is not frugal—and may actually be wasteful

Folks stockpiling last March as if they wouldn’t be able to go shopping again for a long time led not only to price-gouging and fist-fights, but to a lot food going into the trash or compost. Since the pandemic started, food waste is up  about 13.5 per cent, according to a study from Dalhousie’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab. 

Will we see a replay of this needless waste and strife during the second wave? Not if we heed the lessons of six months ago, when panic-buying proved to be its own plague—and a perfectly avoidable one at that. Charlebois, for one, chooses to be optimistic, predicting that we won’t see a lot of it. “This time,”  he says, “consumers are following new habits and are more rational.”


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.