The run on bottled water in Minnesota continues, despite pleas from governmental officials to exercise moderation in grocery shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some Twin Cities stores are limiting bottled water purchases. Others report running out of the plastic gallon jugs shoppers fill up at stores. Water delivery companies, racing to fill large orders for 3- and 5-gallon bottles, find they must institute new controls as some customers try to hoard.
“The pressure has been so high since last Friday that we are reaching a point where we can no longer take on new business because we don’t have enough bottles left,” said Derek Packard, a Culligan Water area manager who works in Minnetonka. “We’re backed up five weeks in some cases before new bottles can arrive.”
Some of the orders have been “outrageous,” Packard said, with customers requesting delivery of 50 — even 100 — 5-gallon bottles. His new rule: His team can only give out the same number of empty bottles a customer returns. “But probably a three-bottle max.”
“It’s crazy,” said Packard.
Nan Downey, senior retail specialist at the Cub Foods on University Avenue in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, said people are buying four to five 24-packs of water at a time.
“I’ve been trying to figure this out, because in the city of St. Paul we have some of the best tap water,” Downey said.
“It’s been about water and toilet paper,” she said.
The exact reasons for the panicky water buying isn’t clear.
“I think it’s just a natural kind of reflex: ‘Oh, we want to have water.’ I don’t think there’s more to it,” said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. “I think people are honestly just frightened.”
Some people may fear that if Minnesota is ordered into a lockdown, like those currently underway in California, Illinois and New York, they could be cut off from basic supplies. That’s not likely since Gov. Tim Walz has deemed that all grocery store personnel in the state are “essential” workers, meaning stores can stay open even if a lockdown happens.
State health officials reiterate that public water supplies are safe. The virus that causes COVID-19 is not spread through drinking water, and the World Health Organization says it hasn’t been detected in any water supplies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that conventional water treatment by a utility would “remove or inactivate” the virus.
“The Minnesota Department of Health is actively working with Minnesota’s public water suppliers to help them put into place their contingency plans for keeping their systems up and running during emergencies,” said agency spokesman Doug Schultz.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proclaims on its website that: “Americans can continue to use and drink water from their tap as usual.”
That is not the case, however, for some Minnesotans whose wells have been contaminated by nitrate from farm fertilizers or other pollutants, and who require bottled drinking water.
That’s a concern for Travis Gustafson, co-owner of Arrowhead Springs in Cloquet. Gustafson said he has customers with contaminated wells. He said he’s hopeful that his employees will be considered “essential” in the event of a lockdown.
“At least I need a big enough heads-up so I make sure I can get to these customers,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson said he’s been forced to turn down large orders from new customers and focus on existing ones. He said he thinks people are actually drinking more water “to keep that immune system flushed out.”
Some shoppers carting out packs of single-serve water on Friday said they simply prefer bottled water. Julie Hanks, wheeling a 24-pack of Deja Blue water to the car at a Brooklyn Park Hy-Vee, said her husband, Roger, likes the taste of that specific brand — and the Hy-Vee had it.
“We’re not stocking up on anything,” said Roger Hanks. That is “stupid,” he said.
The Hy-Vee store manager said they haven’t had to limit water purchases there.
Over at the Maple Grove Costco, however, there is rationing.
Abbes Khaouni, lifting the hatch on his car to load in his groceries, said his family always drinks bottled water — which he considers safer for his two children. He tried to buy four 48-packs on Friday, only to be informed the limit is now one per member.
That’s OK, he said. “I hope Americans will appreciate a lot what they have.”
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683