People stayed away from normally crowded areas including Taipei City’s Xinyi District, and popular tourist hotspots such as Jiufen, but supermarkets in residential districts around Greater Taipei were crowded with people who waited in cues for up to an hour to stock up on such survival essentials as toilet paper and instant noodles, today, Saturday, May 15.
The crowded supermarkets versus empty streets phenomena appeared after the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) reported 180 new cases of COVID-19, leading to the CECC raising the epidemic alert level to Level 3 for Taipei City and New Taipei City.
The large number of COVID-positive cases followed the implementation of mass testing at rapid screening testing centers in Taipei City’s Wanhua District yesterday, and contact tracing from 16 cases who tested positive in the previous two days.
Taiwan’s health officials had, until now, successfully rejected general screening for COVID-19, despite pressure from sometimes politically-motivated opposition party held municipal governments, or merely dissenting opinions from experts in the medical community.
That dam wall has now been broken.
Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je announced the opening of the testing centers yesterday, encouraging anyone who had been to Wanhua District since April 15, particularly staff and customers at “tea parlors,” and anyone who sought treatment of fever or respiratory symptoms at clinics or pharmacies in the district to consider a test.
Mayor Ko said that social workers will assist homeless people, of which there are a large number in the district, to also be tested. Foreign spouses were also counted as among “high risk groups.”
Xinyi District a Ghost Town
The streets and food courts of the normally bustling Xinyi District resembled a ghost town today, as people stayed close to home following the raising of the epidemic alert level, advice from the mayor, and the closing of popular sightseeing spots including the Taipei 101 observation deck.
Pictures of the deserted streets were widely published by local media outlets after being posted to a Xinyi District Facebook group this afternoon. The post noted that this is Xinyi District at 2:00 pm May 15, 2021, and that normally it would only look as empty as this on the first day of the Lunar New Year.
Jiufen a City of Sadness for shopkeepers
In Jiufen, a former gold mining town now dependent on tourism for its livelihood, the tourists stayed away in droves. Many shops, vendors, and restaurants opened as usual, but remained empty of guests. “It’s the rarest and most customerless day in history,” a shopkeeper told United Daily News. “It was already miserable before, and it is even worse today,” another said.
Supermarket shelves emptied of “comfort” products
In a repeat of mass consumer behavior seen two days ago when the epidemic alert warning was raised to Level 2, people rushed en masse to supermarkets to stock up on instant noodles, toilet paper, and other products perceived as essential to survival.
It appears that the maximum of 5 people gathering indoors, or 10 outdoors restriction under epidemic alert Level 3 does not apply to supermarkets as crowds flocked in and packed into narrow aisles to grab life-saving products before standing in cues for up to one hour in some of the larger outlets including Costco, and Carrefoure, RT-Mart, and A-Mart hypermarkets.
Popular supermarket chain PX Mart extended opening hours for all stores in Greater Taipei until midnight to cope with the demand. PX Mart said that it had increased its delivery rate to supermarkets from once to three times per day, and had employed staff to work overtime to operate logistics into a 24-hour a day operation for fresh food processing and delivery.
Extra staff were seen employed at a local Carrefoure supermarket in Shulin District, keenly awaiting a delivery truck that had just arrived after shelves were emptied of instant noodles, many brands of toilet paper were sold out, and freezers containing frozen prepared meals were empty.
Authorities including the Council of Agriculture, and the mayors of Taipei City and New Taipei City urged people to stop panic buying as there are sufficient supplies of everything from food to surgical masks, and empty shelves are only a sign that staff of supermarkets are unable to keep up with the pace of purchases.
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