Amid coronavirus, Australian supermarkets to give older shoppers first access to essential supplies

To shop at Australia’s biggest supermarket chains when they open at 7 a.m., early birds will need to show ID. In general, anyone not yet in their 60s or without a disability pass won’t be allowed in.

The restrictions are a new way to protect the elderly and vulnerable amid a wave of panic buying of everyday essentials as fears of the spreading coronavirus grip major cities. Worries that people might need to self-isolate at home for days or weeks have prompted a rush to buy toilet paper, hand sanitizer and nonperishable foods such as pasta and canned goods in Australia, the U.S. and other countries hit by the virus.

Empty shelves for disinfectant wipes wait for restocking, as concerns grow around COVID-19, Tuesday March 3, 2020, in New York. 

Empty shelves for disinfectant wipes wait for restocking, as concerns grow around COVID-19, Tuesday March 3, 2020, in New York.  (AP)

Starting Tuesday, the elderly and the disabled will be given exclusive access to stores from Australia’s biggest grocery chain, Woolworths Group Ltd., from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. Its chief rival, Coles Group Ltd., said a similar initiative will begin on Wednesday, and an independent grocer in Melbourne is also rolling out a program.

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Woolworths and Coles said they are concerned elderly and disabled people haven’t been able to buy everyday goods as crowds empty store shelves. A busy supermarket can be a tough environment for seniors, who might be frail, in a wheelchair or otherwise unable to move as quickly as other shoppers.

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In Australia, disputes over dwindling supplies have been heated. Earlier in March, police in Sydney charged two women, aged 23 and 60, in connection with an altercation in a supermarket aisle over toilet paper. A 49-year-old woman was allegedly assaulted, but uninjured, police said.

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