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Coronavirus has Florida using Instacart like it’s hurricane season

The grocery delivery app says the number of delivery orders and searches of hand sanitizer is surging across the country.

Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the Tampa Bay area. For the latest news on the outbreak, go to our coronavirus page, which we are updating regularly. You also can sign up for our DayStarter newsletter to have the day’s news sent right to your inbox each morning for free.

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It’s like the run-up to a tropical storm strike for grocery delivery services, except for all the hand sanitizer orders.

As early as Monday, area Instacart shoppers — the contract employees who pick up and deliver items for the grocery app — were fielding orders for eight bottles of 8-ounce hand sanitizer and an entire glazed ham. Customers wanted packs of toilet paper and bulk food, but also sent requests for six to 10 cases of bottled water and up to 30 packages of disinfect wipes.

“It looked like hurricane preparedness,” said Holiday Instacart shopper Amy Santosuosso. “People want some water, some food, just in case."

As of Friday, there were four cases of the coronavirus in Florida — two of which are in Hillsborough County. Although public health officials say the threat of the disease is still low, public response has been high. Rather than go to the grocery store, people are increasingly outsourcing the task to delivery drivers who are managing a surge of large orders.

Nationally, Instacart says it has seen its a tenfold increase in the number of orders since the coronavirus arrived in the United States. In states such as Washington, which has the most number of confirmed cases in the United States, orders have jumped at twice that pace.

In an email to its contract workers, the company told shoppers it was “committed to keeping everyone safe” as the “situation evolves." It also has rolled out a “drop-off” option nationwide for easy contact-less delivery.

Related: ‘Unacceptable:’ Woman on Tampa flight with coronavirus patient blasts Florida officials
An Instacart shopper makes a delivery. [ [Courtesy of Instacart] ]

Santosuosso, who has made Instacart deliveries for two years, said that option has been available in Tampa Bay for a while. But before the coronavirus fears, it was usually people at work or with a sleeping baby who requested it.

Instacart said it would continue to monitor the situation and follow the guidance of public health officials. The app says searches for hand sanitizer, vitamins, face masks and powered milk have surged. Retailers are trying to keep pace with demand.

Santosuosso and her two teenage children were all struck with the flu over Christmas. She was out of work for 10 days — a week of being sick and three days of taking care of her kids while making sure she was healthy enough to go back to work.

It was a huge hit to her income. As a contract worker, she doesn’t get paid sick days.

So in wake of the local coronavirus cases, she decided to cut back on her usual seven-day work week. She took Monday through Wednesday off.

“To be honest, I’m a little paranoid,” she said. "I wanted to take some time to rest and build up my immunity.”

Related: Tampa Bay’s first-responders plan, prepare for coronavirus fears

Local health care experts have said it’s important to wash your hands, not touch your face and get rest. But they’ve also said if you don’t stock up for the flu, there’s not a reason to stock up for the coronavirus.

But some people are making emergency kits in case they have to do a two week at-home self-quarantine — stocking up on anything they can use to kill germs.

Santosuosso said she has always been the type to wipe down carts and carry around hand sanitizer. With such a service oriented job, she has always been conscious of her contact with people and the need to clean her hands before and after every order.

“People might think it’s a little overboard but I don’t think you can be too overboard,” she said.

Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous said the stores are replenishing stocks of Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, bleach, water, canned goods and paper products.

“We continue to make daily deliveries to our stores and are collaborating with our supplier community, industry groups and community partners,” she said.

Publix will continue to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control.

Santosuosso was back at work starting Thursday.

“Though I’m cleaning my hands and everything more than I thought I ever could,” she said.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

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