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Shoppers leave PriceSmart’s MovieTowne branch on Thursday, hours after Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley announced stricter COVID-19 measures to kick in tomorrow.

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Social distancing and multiple warning to stay at home were widely ignored yesterday as the public crowded supermarkets and banks—also ignoring the announcement by National Security Minister Stuart Young that supermarkets are essential services and would not be closed.

The Supermarkets Association of T&T (SAPP) also issued a statement confirming their businesses were an essential service yesterday and that they would not be closed over the next several weeks.

But this did not stop members of the public from lining up for hours outside supermarkets across the country and crowding aisles as they continued panic buying after government announced all non-essential services would be shut down from midnight on Sunday.

Supermarket chain Massy Stores issued a statement yesterday saying it would be limiting the number of people allowed in its store with immediate effect. It said this was being done to ensure that Massy could continue to provide a safe shopping environment to customers and for its staff.

At Xtra Foods Supermarkets, social distancing guidelines were also being implemented. Shoppers are being made to wash their hands before entering the supermarkets three locations and the number of customers being allowed in stores is being limited.

The group’s Marketing Manager, Daniel Austin told Guardian Media customers have been advised to that only one member of each family should be sent to purchase supplies in store.

“Bringing more than one person is putting yourself, your family and loved ones and our staff at greater risk,” Austin said.

Austin said all of the supermarkets’ employees are being given an incentive for showing up to work every day.

“Once you come to work and you are not late for more than two days for the week, you are given a $250 voucher for groceries,” Austin said.

Guardian Media spoke to several people at PriceSmart, Invaders Bay Port of Spain to find out why they were flocking to the supermarket.

Supermarkets are an essential service and will remain open during the stay-at-home period.

Arnold McDowell, 69, said he was not panic buying but simply stocking up for the next three months so he does not have to leave his home at all during the period.

“I am just preparing myself to be able to stay at home and not have to leave for any reason over the next two or three months, I am not working and I don’t want to be outside for any reason because I don’t know what could happen with this virus,” McDowell said.

Another customer, Kathy-Ann said she too wanted to stock up so she wouldn’t have to leave her home during the lockdown.

She said she chose to do her shopping on Friday evening because she felt as though there would be more people shopping on Saturday.

“I am not panic buying but if the numbers go up drastically I might panic buy next week,” she said. My sister and my daughters are at high risk so I wanted to come when it was a little quieter to do my shopping.”

Meanwhile police will be on patrol trying to break up large crowds outside of supermarkets as citizens rush to panic buy ahead of Sunday night’s shutdown of non-essential services.

Police Commissioner Gary Griffith said the TTPS has noted that supermarket owners are doing their part to ensure social distancing in their business places but said customers are not adhering to the warnings.

“There are many businesses who are adhering to their responsibilities but by doing that, it is causing a line up on the outside and therein lies the problem because now there is a mass assembly of persons and they are not social distancing,” Griffith said.

He reiterated that this measure is not a heavy-handed police exercise but one to educate the public.

Griffith said he would be liaising with the Supermarkets Association to see what other measures can be put in place.