A week ago, it was a nuisance to shoppers and a boon for retailers. Now, it has turned into something of a public health crisis. Fear that the coronavirus outbreak will spread rapidly in the U.S. -- and people's understandable desires to reduce their own odds of getting infected -- has lead to panic runs on hand sanitizer, disinfectant sprays and wipes, and other goods. As a result, some retailers have decided they have no choice but to ration. Publix grocery stores in Georgia imposed limits on the number of such products shoppers could purchase this past weekend, mirroring a move made by Kroger (NYSE:KR) late last week when it limited the number of sanitizers and cold/flu products it would sell to customers online.

An empty grocery store shelf

Image Source: Getty Images.

It's not just hand sanitizers though. Supplies of other numerous consumer goods are also drying up, among them bottled water, toilet paper, and dried foods like pasta that have long shelf lives. It all reflects the general sense that people may soon need to hole up at home for a while and hide from the epidemic, in a way that will limit their ability to hit the supermarket.

The supply crunches haven't been limited just to grocers. Home improvement store chain Home Depot has begun rationing face masks that can filter out airborne viruses.

While some store shelves are bare as a result of all the panic buying, other stores in other parts of the country appear to have plenty of toilet paper and disinfectant spray in stock. It's possible some of the insatiable and uneven demand reflects capitalistic plans to resell those goods at a profit. E-commerce platform Amazon.com has reportedly removed listings for thousands of related goods that were clearly overpriced and meant to take advantage of nervous consumers.

If you haven't laid in a supply of hand sanitizer yet, be careful about which one you buy, should you find some available. Not all of them are effective at killing the coronavirus -- you'll want one with at least 70% alcohol. But if you can't find those, don't get too stressed: Simply washing your hands with soap and hot water is still a better way to prevent infection.