Hong Kong has a coronavirus face mask shortage. Now rumors have sparked toilet paper panic buying

February 6, 2020, 10:16 AM UTC

Hong Kong has been struggling with a shortage of face masks to protect against the coronavirus outbreak. Now it could be facing a run on toilet paper.

Toilet rolls were unavailable in supermarkets in parts of the city as posts circulated on social media showing empty shelves and shoppers lining up to snag rolls, fueling the latest shortage in a city that’s increasingly trying to isolate itself from China to keep the virus from spreading. Products from rice to hand sanitizer and condoms were also vanishing from stores.

Hong Kong’s leader has said the city will quarantine people arriving from mainland China, including city residents and visitors entering via its international airport.

The cause of the toilet paper shortage wasn’t immediately clear, but speculation was rife on social media about possible holdups involving the supply chain in mainland China. The city’s government said late Wednesday that it regretted the “malicious act of spreading rumours” caused shortages of products like rice and toilet paper. It added that steps to contain the coronavirus would not affect the movement of freight across the border.

Vinda International Holdings, a Hong Kong-listed toilet paper producer, said some of its mainland factories will resume production this week or next according to government guidelines, adding it had no plans for closures. The group said in an emailed statement that “tight supply” of toilet paper in Hong Kong supermarkets may have been due to leave taken by logistics workers over the Lunar New Year holiday, but that those people are returning to work. Vinda shares rose as much as 8% Thursday before closing little changed.

“Supermarkets and other retail outlets are now restocking with our products to ensure a sufficient supply,” the company said.

Supermarket chains scrambled to fill shelves. Wellcome’s owner said the firm is “working closely with our suppliers to provide sufficient and diversified choices of products to our customers.” A spokesperson for ParkNShop said it is in close contact with suppliers, and stocks will improve as mainland workers return from holiday. ParkNShop said deliveries across the border have not been affected.

One young man carrying a sack of toilet paper rolls on the street on Wednesday evening said a friend had lined up to get them. Visits to eight supermarkets near the main business district by a Bloomberg reporter turned up no rolls Wednesday evening, and empty shelves persisted at many stores on Thursday.

Two men stood outside a U Select supermarket in the Sheung Wan neighborhood Wednesday night, trying to figure out how to plan their lives around having no rolls in the bathroom.

“We went to five stores and no toilet paper,” said Lok Gork, 30, a designer living in Hong Kong. “We got some wet wipes. You never know. You’re better safe than sorry.”

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