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Save your breath: As the coronavirus outbreak rages, so, too, is something else — demand for masks

GREENSBORO — First, they limited buyers of the special respirator masks to two boxes.

Then, last week, as public concern over the coronavirus grew more intense, Dove Medical Supply on Lawndale Drive allowed customers to purchase just one box of 24 or more.

Now, manager Kierra Reid said customers can buy only five of the store’s most protective, N95-grade masks at a time.

“It molds around your face and doesn’t let the germs get in,” Reid said about how the mask works. “We’re still getting a lot of requests.”

She said the company successfully ordered 40 more cases of the masks recently, but “that’s all we can get” for the time being.

She said the spike in local demand started early last week as concern about the rapidly-spreading virus from the Chinese city of Wuhan intensified.

The initial surge was fueled by foreign exchange students and others with family in Asia where the outbreak remains centered.

But in recent days, Reid said the momentum seems to have shifted toward local people, some of whom are traveling and leery of interacting with other passengers.

In addition to the N95 masks, many are buying disposable, medical-grade gloves and disinfectant wipes.

“They’re taking a plane and wiping everything down,” Reid said.

The first wave of buyers last week often said they had family in China where protective gear was scarce and selling at astronomical prices, Reid said.

“One man told me they were charging $10 in China for one mask,” she recalled.

Other retailers that sell disposable, protective masks also have seen a sharp spike in demand. The Home Depot has limited customers to 10 of its most protective face masks that fall into the N95 category — the ones typically used by laborers — said Margaret Smith of the company’s Atlanta headquarters.

“It’s so we can serve as many people as possible,” she said, adding that the company is “working hard to replenish supplies.”

On its web site, Home Depot describes its N95 particulate mask as providing “at least 95% filtration efficiency against solid and liquid aerosols that do not contain oil,” including allergens and other lung irritants.

Walgreens also has seen heavy demand for protective masks, but company spokeswoman Alex Brown said she could not speak specifically about Greensboro.

However, she said the company has not put a cap on the number of masks a customer can purchase: “We do not limit sales.”

At Dove Medical Supply, the N95-grade mask gives users the best chance of blocking nasty germs because it has a thicker web of fabric over the nose and mouth, Reid said.

She said a package of five costs $10.

The medical supplier also has less highly-graded varieties, including “fluid resistant” and standard surgical masks. They cost significantly less, but also offer less protection.

One of the supply store’s customers Monday morning was a local physician who bought packs of both the N95 and lower-grade surgical masks.

He did not want to give his name, but said he was buying the masks to protect his family of four from a disease that seems to defy the normal constraints on when and how a contagion spreads.

“I’m just trying to be prepared,” he said. “Hopefully you buy this stuff for what turns out to be no reason.”

Guilford County Schools will hold school choice showcase on Wednesday

GREENSBORO — Guilford County Schools is hosting its annual Choice Showcase on Wednesday — an event the district expects will draw about 5,000 people as it did last year.

The event takes place from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Special Events Center. It’s free, including parking.

It’s an opportunity for families to look more deeply into the 66 programs the district offers students at 48 schools. That includes high school JROTC programs and the new Signature Career Academies, such as the Academy of Computer and Information Science at Northeast High School.

There will be booths where families can talk to staff from various programs and learn more.

Students can apply to any of these programs starting Wednesday through March 4.

School choice programs at Northeast Guilford High School

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Earth Fare to close all stores, including Greensboro, High Point locations

GREENSBORO — Less than seven months after opening a gleaming new 24,000-square-foot store in High Point, Earth Fare announced it is closing all 50 of its stores, including that one and a remodeled Greensboro location.

The Asheville-based natural and organic food supermarket chain made the announcement on Monday morning.

The company operates 13 stores in North Carolina with roughly 900 employees, company spokeswoman Jennifer Mercer said.

The High Point store opened in July at the Palladium at Deep River shopping center.

Earth Fare’s North Carolina stores are in Asheville, Boone, Charlotte, Concord, Greensboro, High Point, Huntersville, Morrisville, Raleigh and Wilmington, according to the company website.

Mercer said the company would not comment beyond details in a news release.

The company said in the release that it “has implemented numerous strategic initiatives aimed at growth and expansion and enhancing the customer experience.’’

Still, the company said, while business improved in some ways, challenges in the industry hurt the company’s progress and “its ability to refinance its debt. As a result, Earth Fare is not in a financial position to continue to operate on a go-forward basis.”

The company will begin inventory-liquidation sales “while we continue to engage in a process to find potential suitors for our stores,” the release said.

Mercer said “anything’s possible” if a buyer for the company emerges, but the plan right now is to close the stores and vacate the leases, including the one at 2965 Battleground Ave. in Greensboro.

One of Battleground Village’s earliest tenants, Greensboro’s Earth Fare got a complete renovation of its 27,887-square-foot space in 2017.

The closure is surprising given the company’s optimistic outlook in recent months.

GroceryDive.com, an industry trade website, wrote a year ago that Earth Fare was mounting an aggressive expansion program “that involves opening 50 more stores throughout the U.S. by 2024.”

The rapid expansion, GroceryDive wrote, “follows the chain’s new access to capital after Oak Hill Capital acquired an 80% interest in the brand in 2012, (the company’s CEO) told The Charlotte Observer.”

Earth Fare began 45 years ago as a natural foods store in Asheville called Dinner for the Earth.

In 1994, the company expanded from its original stock of locally-sourced foods and became a full-service supermarket named Earth Fare, according to the company’s website.

In 2008, the company banned products with high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener.

Throughout its history it has developed a “Boot List” of foods that keeps “bad ingredients out.”

For example, you won’t find artificial colors, bleached flour, trans fats, margarine, saccharine or sodium nitrite at a store.

In July, company President and CEO Frank Scorpiniti came to High Point to open the new store there.

He said, “we center ourselves as a health care company that happens to sell groceries. Our mission is that we would sell only the cleanest foods.”

“If we wouldn’t feed it to our families, then we wouldn’t sell it to our customers,” Scorpiniti said.

Scorpiniti said of the High Point market: “We saw a community that is vibrantly growing and looking for healthier alternatives and a healthy food environment that could bring a full shop assortment under one roof.”

Prior to opening, the High Point store formed a community advisory board, standard procedure for new stores. The 30 members from High Point met for several months to weigh in on the store’s dairy choices, grass-fed beef options, fresh seafood and local produce.

Earth Fare stocks 1,200 of its own proprietary non-GMO food items and cruelty-free health and beauty products, including full-spectrum CBD oil.

The chain employs a medical doctor to help the company stay abreast of healthy food developments.

“That’s pretty unique,” Scorpiniti said. “We think we need that extra validation to make sure we’re on the right path because we’re influencing a lot of customers and their families.”

The new store also featured amenities such as freshly ground peanut butter, bulk dispensing of such liquids as vinegar and olive oil, and a juice bar.

It also offered a budget-friendly program called Clean Food Security in which daily entrees-to-go are offered that can feed a family of four for about $2.50 per person.

Mercer declined to reveal the private company’s annual revenues or profits.

The company said it will also sell its store fixtures.