In announcing new statewide restrictions aimed at reducing the spike in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Jay Inslee on Sunday urged people not to hoard “supplies.”
“Buying up everything really hurts everybody,” Inslee said, “and there’s no necessity of it right now.”
But while the man didn’t specifically call out toilet paper, the toilet paper sure did call to shoppers.
At some Seattle stores on Sunday, in a throwback to earlier days of the pandemic, people were already buying up stacks of bathroom tissue, which seems to turn to spun gold when things look grim.
Costco ran out of the stuff over the weekend, and there was none to be found Sunday at the Safeway on Madison Street in Seattle, or the QFC on Rainier Avenue South.
(The Costco on Fourth Avenue was also out of paper towels, disinfectant wipes and all Kleenex products, according to a whiteboard posted outside).
There was still some left at the Safeway just down Rainier — but it was going at a steady clip. Angel Soft, Charmin. Quilted, cotton or mega. Didn’t matter.
“Is there a limit?” asked a woman named Pat.
Pat didn’t want to give her last name, which makes a certain kind of sense. Much as we talk about the stuff — how much we need for how many people and for how long — toilet paper is still a very personal thing.
“There’s only two of us,” Pat said, grabbing a package of 12 rolls of Charmin, then dropping her voice. “But my daughter goes through it quite fast.”
OK. Understood. No judgment.
“When I was growing up, my Dad, his rule was one sheet,” she continued. “We may have to go to Grandpa’s rule.”
She stopped, scanned the semi-bare shelves and grabbed another package.
“Maybe I’ll try for three,” she said. “Put them under my bed.”
A recent study using personality surveys showed that those most likely to hoard toilet paper were found to be more emotional, more conscientious and more fearful of COVID-19 than the rest of the population.
Hoarding TP isn’t so much a selfish act as “an expression of concerns for friends and families during hard times,” a ScienceAlert article about the survey said. “And who can really blame them for looking out for number one when it comes to number twos?“
In Germany, sales of toilet paper increased by 700% at the start of the pandemic, so-called “hamster purchases” because the tiny creatures tend to hoard when they get panicky.
The state’s new restrictions call for retail stores including supermarkets to limit occupancy to 25% of capacity, starting Monday at 11:59 p.m.
Castillo’s Supermarket in White Center served a steady flow of customers Sunday, under its social distance methods that include plastic shields for checkout clerks.
Owner Ramon Castillo said he’s seen some customers stock up on canned foods this weekend but not serious hoarding. As for capacity, he estimates that 25 people can fit in the store at a time and he doesn’t expect that guests will need to wait in line outside. And maybe demand will slip. He’s determined not to reduce staff, but says the next few weeks won’t be easy.
“I don’t know,” he said, between transactions at the money order station. “A lot of people are scared, and maybe won’t come in here much. We’ll see.”
Back at the Rainier Valley Safeway, Nitta Slaughter and her son, Niguel, had nothing but toilet paper in their cart.
“There’s four or five of us in the house …,” Nitta explained.
“… And there’s a couple of us who don’t know how to use toilet paper,” Niguel added.
Nitta was just glad to see there was any toilet paper at all.
“I heard they were shutting the city back down, and I don’t want to be standing in line,” she said. “But the prices have skyrocketed! Not even a name brand and it’s $18 for nine rolls!”
Charanna Neal was in line behind a woman who had three, 12-roll packs.
“We don’t have any right now,” said Neal, who had just one package — and nothing else. “I was just sent on a tissue run. But I was just on Facebook and everyone was like, ‘Buy it all!’
“What is it about toilet paper?”
Maybe it isn’t about toilet paper at all — but the hamster in some of us.
Seattle Times reporters Paige Cornwell and Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.