It is 4½ hours until the Costco in Signal Hill opens at 9 a.m., yet there are more than a handful of cars in the parking lot. By Southern California standards, it’s cold — 42 degrees, and windy. Yet 14 people, armed with shopping carts, are in line.

Not all are standing, though. Giovanni (no last name given), 54, was savvy enough to bring a chair and a Thermos of coffee. Just behind him is Francisco Ramos, 55, wearing two sweatshirts, a wool cap and gloves. He has turned his shopping car on its side so he can sit down.

“I got up at 3:30 and was here at 4,” Giovanni says. “I just don’t like waiting in line so it’s worth the five-hour wait. I need everything and I know I can’t come at 10 o’clock because the line will be around the building.

Ramos awoke early because he came too late the previous week and he was determined to be at the front.

“I need water and things for my kids,” he says. “The economy has gone so bad, but I don’t get why people are stocking up on paper products, water and beans. I just don’t get it.”

Meanwhile, about seven miles away, at Sam’s Club at 7480 Carson Blvd., the line has wrapped itself around the corner of the building, almost to the Tire Center, and the store won’t open its doors until 9 a.m., which is about 3½ hours hence.

Olivia Reyes is a longshoreman who works both the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles. She works the 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift, but here she is, feeling exhausted, at 5:45 a.m., at the front of the line.

“The only way to be guaranteed to get toilet paper is to get here early and to be one of the first in line,” she says. “It seems like everybody hoarded at the beginning and that’s why there isn’t as much available. You can’t be picky about what brand, just get one big package.”

Reyes’s niece, Christine West, lives in Corona, yet she drove to Long Beach to lend a hand and help Reyes collect and deliver the basics to their 86-year-old aunt.

“My aunt has a heart condition; she can’t stand in line for hours,” West says. “She can’t get things for herself, so we are doing it for her.”

Outside of those who’ve experienced wartime conditions — like rationing during World War II — Oliver Wang, a sociology professor at Long Beach State, says he doesn’t think that most Americans have ever seen this kind of panic-buying of basic household goods at a national level.

“Back in 1973, there was a run on toilet paper caused by unsubstantiated rumors that there’d be a shortage of toilet paper which then led people to panic-buy, thus creating the shortage they feared,” Wang writes in an email. “That kind of self-fulfilling prophecy is very similar to what we’re seeing now, where people’s fears of a shortage ends up creating a shortage, especially when we see these things reported in the media and on social media.”

Wang writes that people will soon realize they don’t need more than a few weeks of toilet paper and they’ll stop panic-buying.

On The Line

It is 90 minutes until the doors open and the line at Sam’s Club has snaked its way beyond Bob’s Discount Furniture and well past the police academy shooting range. It almost extends to Walmart, about a quarter-mile away.

“One time I was 15th in line and Sam’s only had one pallet of toilet paper and I didn’t get any,” Eloy Certeza, 44, says. “So, I was up at 4 o’clock this morning and I got here as quickly as I could. But that’s the way of everything now. Every single time, whatever hour you show up, you are waiting in a line; everything and everywhere.”

Certeza purchased a freezer recently so he could stock up on food, but he emphasizes that he is only being ready, not panicky.

“It’s all for family,” he says. “Everybody is on their own.”

But Danielle Kohfeldt, an associate professor in the psychology department at Long Beach State, said she believes that people look to others to help interpret the meaning of situations.

“In this case, we often hear conflicting messages from the media, political leaders and local neighbors (e.g., NextDoor),” she writes via email. “On the one hand, some political leaders are telling us to remain calm, that everything is under control, while local stores (including grocery delivery services) are reporting empty shelves. We start to observe the behavior of others to figure out how we should respond. You see people lining up at 4 a.m. and that tells you, ‘this is an emergency!’ ”

Kohfeldt adds that the early lining up is also motivated by a perceived scarcity of resources and that perceived scarcity prompts fear and uncertainty.

“Going to Costco five hours early to be the first one in line gives people a sense of control,” she writes.

Ready To Go

At 8:40 a.m., people waiting at Costco are starting to stretch their legs. Three women have been sitting and talking for almost four hours.

“I think people are making this chaos,” Elizabeth Albertson says. “They don’t think about other people. I’m not stocking up. I mean, I can’t even find rice or beans or any canned goods at the Dollar Tree.”

Albertson tells her two friends, Dolores Canela and Elaine Andrade, that she is seeing one roll of toilet paper for sale online for $5. “It’s upsetting,” she says.

Andrade is in line, but it’s not for something she can purchase at Costco; it’s for something she can’t buy.

“I don’t usually get up this early, but I didn’t have a choice,” she says. “I decided to come to meet with these two (Albertson and Canela). I came for the fellowship. I was going stir crazy sitting in my house, so what better place than to wait in lines with friends and catch up on what’s happening.”

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