Toilet paper: The surest sign that we’re back to ‘normal’

The toilet paper aisle at Walmart in early March.

The toilet paper aisle at Walmart in early March. And pretty much every day since.

Right now, there is a lot of debate going on about when we should return to “normal” as a society. This debate takes two forms. One is the usual stupidness that is the particular genius of Donald J. Trump. You know how that goes: If you’re a sensible person, you want to continue the social distancing. If you voted for Donald Trump and would do so again, or want people to think so, you might tend to scream until people let you resume doing stupid things.

There’s another debate going on, but it’s harder to hear because the first one is so loud. In this one, more or less reasonable people try to figure out how to determine when it is safe to go to work, to go shopping, to get a haircut, etc., the way we used to. This debate has a reasonable basis, because we know those things will happen someday. Even the Spanish Flu ended. So how will we know when that day has arrived, or for that matter, when it would be safe to step carefully in that direction?

Well, I’m going to tell you right now that the day has not arrived, and it’s not even close.

I could use all sorts of standards for this. I could say, the day will not be here until we’ve gone several days without a single new case of COVID-19 in South Carolina.

But there’s an easier standard than that, and I think it’s perfect in every way. You don’t have to monitor the entities keeping count of the sick, or pay attention to the frequent briefings involving governors or you-know-who.

If you or someone in your family is making periodic, careful trips to buy groceries — and I think most of us are covered by that, or else we’d starve — you’ll know when it happens.

I’m talking about the day that you go to Food Lion, Walmart, CVS or wherever, and the toilet paper shelves are full. Like, the way they were six months ago full. And they continue to be that way. Then they take down the signs that beg you to take only one package.

All sorts of factors go into this, and a lot of it has to do with something like crowdsourcing. When the A-holes who bought all the toilet paper to begin with stop buying it, and the rest of us stop making a practice of buying ONE package when we see one, it will indicate that everyone is pretty sure we’re safe. It will also indicate that our commercial distribution systems have caught up and are again able to do something that — compared to all the way more complicated things our modern economy does all the time — ought to be pretty simple: keep the supply of a basic, simple commodity that doesn’t rot or otherwise lose value while sitting on a shelf flowing.

When we can manage all that, we’re ready. The public is ready. The economy is ready. We’re clear.

Until then, we need to maintain our distance. It doesn’t matter how badly you need a haircut — if we can’t keep toilet paper on the shelves, we’re still too messed up. Use a comb, creatively.

Anyway, there’s your standard.

14 thoughts on “Toilet paper: The surest sign that we’re back to ‘normal’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    And if monitoring this is too much work for you, just check with me. I’ll keep you posted. FYI, I didn’t go to the grocery today, but my wife went early this morning to our nearest supermarket.

    There was not a single package of toilet paper available. There hasn’t been at that store, a single time, since all this began.

    There’s occasionally one — at a time (the employee puts in on the shelf, a customer picks it up; the process repeats) — at the Walmart nearest me. But just as often, there’s none there, either.

    I’m going to use a strict standard and go by the store that hasn’t had a roll yet. When that one becomes fully stocked and stays that way, I’ll let you know…

  2. Pat

    I’m going to test out Costco Thursday. One friend has been going to Costco every Thursday and then posting a picture of the well-stocked toilet paper section on Facebook. So far I haven’t been anywhere that had enough on the shelves. My husband has stopped at the dollar store and always finds toilet paper there. The manager there told him their stock arrives every morning.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m not a member at Costco, but I might check out the dollar stores if I start to run out.

      Of course, that still won’t meet my standard for reopening society. They’ve ALL got to be back to normal…

      1. Pat

        I agree with your standard. I would add to the toilet paper standard: Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer/wipes both of which I have yet to find.

    2. Norm Ivey

      TP at dollar stores is an anecdote I’ve heard consistently since this began. I wonder why? Frequent restocking? Folks who shop there are more considerate of others?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        That’s an interesting question to raise, whether “Folks who shop there are more considerate of others.”

        But the answer would probably be NO at the one where the security guard was shot for enforcing the mask rule.

        Of course, my wife would say THAT’S not a dollar store, but just a store with “Dollar” in the name. She’s picky about it. To her, the only “dollar” store is the kind of place she takes our grandchildren because there’s nothing over a dollar.

        How do Y’ALL mean it? I’m guessing most folks include the stores with “Dollar” in the name — like “Family Dollar” or “Dollar General.”

        I want to know in case I need to go there to buy toilet paper…

    3. Pat

      I scored at Costco today (Thursday). I arrived at 12:30. I found it to be fully stocked of their brand (Kirkland’s) toilet paper and paper towels. These were giant packs. And I found a large package of Kleenex brand tissue. There were not as many of those. Tissue has been scarce also. I didn’t see any disinfectants. I bought some other things that are a good deal there. They require face masks. It was worth my trip.
      I know the point of your post is what normalcy will look like but I thought this might be helpful information for someone.
      I’ve been realizing some of what would be considered first world problems: preferred brands and convenience items. I’m learning to be satisfied with what’s available and to be without some items that have turned out to be non-essential.

  3. jim catoe

    Where’s a Sears Roebuck catalog when you need one? I can recall seeing the handy catalogs in my grandparents out house in Guilford County NC, circa 1950.

  4. Realist

    I can understand a run on paper towels for the obvious reasons, constant cleaning of surfaces in the home and elsewhere where the virus can survive for a longer period of time.

    I cannot understand the run on bread and milk that did happen but is showing signs of relief.

    I cannot understand at all the need to have an excessive amount of TP even with the self-quarantine and stay at home. The need for TP because of the sudden increase in at home time by families with children is understandable and accounting for those who work at home remotely. This begs the question of just how much time does one spend in the bathroom and needing TP each day either at home or work?

    I don’t use any more TP now than I did before the virus became our jailor but finding it has become a treasure hunt along with Clorox wipes and hand sanitizers/wipes Pat mentioned. The shelves are void of either and when the Clorox wipes arrived at the local Sam’s Club, the entire shipment was gone in less than 20 minutes. People were walking away with 2, 3,4 & 5 of the 4 pack Clorox wipes. Since that day, I haven’t seen a single pack of Clorox wipes anywhere. Even bottles of 70% alcohol are difficult to find.

    Luckily I have a good supply of TP and alcohol left over from taking care of my wife and won’t need any for months. Hopefully the shortages won’t last too much longer. If it does, the scrounging and hunt for TP and other essential cleaners for the home and personal hygiene will become a permanent shortage and the cost will increase due to low inventory and high demand.

    Darn glad we don’t have to depend on China for TP like we do for several of our critical pharmaceuticals.

    From a March 11, 2020 NYT article.

    “90 percent of U.S. antibiotics, vitamin C, ibuprofen and hydrocortisone, as well as 70 percent of acetaminophen and 40 to 45 percent of heparin is manufactured in China.

    “If China shut the door on exports of core components to make our medicines, within months our pharmacy shelves would become bare and our health care system would cease to function,” said Rosemary Gibson, a senior adviser with the Hastings Center and an author of “China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine.”

    “In the event of a natural disaster or global pandemic, then the United States will wait in line with every other country for essential medicines,” she said.”

    Considering the number of generic pharmaceutical plants in the US plus the number of major pharma companies and the vast number of pharma companies located in Puerto Rico, it is a damn disgrace that we have allowed this nation to become so dependent on a Communist regime country to own so much control of so many of the products we consume each day. And this is not only true for pharmaceuticals but time and space are limited to list all.

    We are not longer dependent on importing oil and hopefully we will become once again a nation that will be more self sufficient and less vulnerable to behind held hostage by countries like Communist China.

    Sorry for getting off subject.

    1. Barry

      We are a country that prides itself on free market capitalism. That drives companies to produce products cheaply as possible to maximize profit.

      Since the early 80s we’ve heard about how great it is that companies are maximizing profit, while seemingly ignoring everything else.

      Fritz Hollings spent decades earning about China and NAFTA and MFn status and almost no one paid him any attention.

      We earned what we got.

    2. Pat

      Re: “90 percent of U.S. antibiotics, vitamin C, ibuprofen and hydrocortisone, as well as 70 percent of acetaminophen and 40 to 45 percent of heparin is manufactured in China.
      “If China shut the door …”
      Add to this face masks, gowns, and other PPEs, and ventilators. We have let ourselves get in a sorry state.


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