Business/Economy

Bad weather and rising COVID-19 cases contribute to some empty shelves in Alaska grocery stores

Alaska grocers are scrambling to refill shelves after winter storms closed roads and affected ports in Washington state, leading to reduced shipments of milk, eggs, frozen food and other items delivered to Alaska by container ships across the Pacific Ocean.

Rising COVID-19 case counts are another factor affecting food production and distribution, compounding existing pandemic labor shortages as more workers get sick, people in the industry say.

While Anchorage grocery shelves remained mostly stocked in recent days, spot shortages left refrigerated sections at some stores largely barren of essentials, especially eggs, juice, dairy items and produce, along with some frozen foods. By Tuesday, some sections remained bare or partly empty.

[U.S. shoppers find some groceries scarce due to virus and weather disruptions]

Every Sunday and Tuesday, container ships with Matson and Tote Maritime typically reach the Port of Alaska in Anchorage. They deliver most of the supplies sold in the state after a nearly three-day journey from the Port of Tacoma in Washington.

The Fred Meyer store in Midtown Anchorage has signs taped to its cooler doors: “Severe weather has caused shipping issues, these items are temporarily out of stock.”

“This is amazing,” shopper Ann Courtney said at the store on Tuesday, after she was unable to find the yogurt she wanted. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quite this empty.”

Carrs Safeway grocery stores have also been short or devoid of a variety of basic items, including milk, frozen foods and some meats.

[How one cargo ship delay sends ripples through Alaska’s food supply chain]

Sara Osborne, a spokeswoman with Carrs Safeway, attributed the problem primarily to the recent multiday road closures at mountain passes in the state of Washington, after storms glazed roads with snow, rain and ice. That delayed truck shipments to ports.

Major routes were reopening Sunday and Monday, according to news reports.

“The closure of all of the mountain passes in (Washington) prevented product loads into our distribution center in Auburn (Washington),” Osborne said in an email. “However, since their opening, we have seen a big increase in the number of loads arriving at the distribution center this week, which will greatly help us recover in Alaska.”

A ship that arrived in Anchorage on Tuesday, and another on Sunday, will help Carrs catch up, she said.

“The stores’ shelves should be in much better shape” after Sunday’s shipment, she said.

The shortages are also extending to rural grocery stores. The storms have also made it hard to keep Alaska Commercial’s 33 stores around Alaska stocked with perishables such as produce, meat and dairy items, said Walter Pickett, general manager of the stores.

The warehouse in Centralia, Washington, where Alaska commercial stores items closed last week because of flooding from the storms.

“That hurt us,” Pickett said.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, shoppers have become accustomed to unexpected shortages of all kinds of items, caused by supply chain disruptions as the illness has hit workforces and shut down factories.

But lately, grocery stores across the nation are facing another round of growing supply pinches, thanks in part to rising omicron cases, according to national news accounts.

The rising cases are an issue for Alaska stores, too, though that’s less important than the mountain pass closures, Osborne said.

“Increasing COVID cases are temporarily reducing labor in every segment of the supply chain,” she said.

[How supply chain hang-ups are stalling construction projects across Anchorage]

COVID-19 has not caused significant outbreaks at the ports in Tacoma and Seattle, said Melanie Stambaugh of the Northwest Seaport Alliance, which runs marine cargo operations in the Seattle and Tacoma ports.

Also, the Matson and Tote terminals in Tacoma remained operational shortly after Christmas, when a big snowstorm closed many other terminals for at least two days, she said.

But the recent bad weather in the pass had an impact on the Alaska supply chain, she said.

Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said a rise in COVID-19 cases is also likely causing more demand at grocery stores, as it is nationally. Demand at stores was also an issue in the early days of the pandemic, as many people loaded up on groceries to stay home.

“With omicron’s intense rapid rise, I’m sure that had a chilling effect on consumers going out in public,” Popp said.

Reduced hours for port crews during holiday breaks around Christmas also impacted shipments and loading recently, said Eddie Walton, Matson’s director of Alaska Railbelt logistics.

And the weather has been “merciless” this year, he said, including “storm after storm” in the Gulf of Alaska.

That bad weather slowed ships.

But the shortages aren’t caused by the Matson and Tote Maritime ships, which are generally arriving at the Port of Alaska in Anchorage on time, said Jim Jager, a spokesman with the port.

[From 2018: How one cargo ship delay sends ripples through Alaska’s food supply chain]

“The problem is not on this end,” Jager said.

Placing a box of eggs into a cart at the Midtown Fred Meyer on Monday, Alisha Silba said she’s a realtor who also delivers groceries to customers who order over Instacart, the online delivery platform.

It was her third shopping trip of the day. The lack of some products had kept her in close contact with customers to find other options for out-of-stock items.

“I’ve had to adjust,” she said. “It’s a variety of things. Fresh fruit, different bottled teas, quite a few frozen items.”

She’s been doing that since the pandemic began last year. But the recent shortages at Fred Meyer on Monday seems a bit more acute.

“It’s been a crazy year,” she said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

Sponsored