Drake feels he’s adequately stocked for the pandemic. (photo illustration by Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

I never expected to be writing about anything as terrible as coronavirus, let alone the strange question that has been on so many people’s minds since the pandemic started: Where can I find some toilet paper?

Frequent readers of this column likely believe this is the subject I am most qualified to report about. I will try not to disappoint.

So why is toilet paper flying off the shelves of Wyoming stores and throughout the country? I asked several people to give me their theories, including a psychologist.

My favorite response was from Joanne Carpenter, who manages the Kaycee General Store. “I think they’re frickin’ crazy,” she said of customers who have cleaned her shop out of the product. “I can think of a lot more things to worry about right now than toilet paper!”

Amen, sister. This disease has sickened people worldwide and disrupted every facet of life. The fear it stokes in us can be difficult to understand. That’s probably why people have turned to something they can try to control: Their toilet paper supply.

For the record, it’s not the only item Carpenter’s store is running low on, she said. Cheese and dog food are also in high demand in Kaycee.

The manager said her regular grocery supplier can’t guarantee her any toilet paper, so she’s not even bothering to order more from that distributor. “Fortunately, we’re also a hardware store, so I’m placing an order with our [hardware] supplier for toilet paper and pet food. We’ll see if we have any luck.” 

I visited a Cheyenne Walmart late one evening soon after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic and local restaurants closed. In addition to being out of paper and cleaning products, several areas looked like they’d been overridden by a plague of locusts. I was shocked to see there was no meat, no dairy products, not even a can of soup.

Dr. Steve Freng, academic professional lecturer in psychology at the University of Wyoming, said hoarding supplies in uncertain times isn’t unexpected.  

“Part of the hoarding behavior may be a type of conformity,” he said. “If I go to the grocery store and see that others are buying up all the toilet paper or Purell, I might think that others have better information about the situation than I do. In other words, they may know something I don’t — maybe manufacturers are shutting down.”

Freng said similar behavior followed the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when people lined up to buy gasoline throughout the country.

“There is research showing that if we think something is rare or limited, we tend to value it more,” he said. “So, thinking that there is a limited supply of something creates an inflated value of that commodity.”

My family already had more than an adequate supply of toilet paper, but a few homebound friends and relatives asked me to buy some for them if I saw any. During the first week of the shortage, my search was in vain. The closest I came was when I went to buy batteries at a store that had just opened at 6 a.m. Everyone I saw was either hugging large packs of TP or had them in their carts. 

When I made my way to what I assumed was the mother lode, I found row after row of empty shelves. I had come this close to winning the Toilet Paper Sweepstakes. Curses!

After I told those counting on me to be their main TP connection that I wasn’t up to the task, I wandered down a Walmart aisle one afternoon and spied the prize. I bagged my limit, which was two packages. The clerk told me the truck had just arrived and that I was very lucky.

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Fortunately, no one asked me to look for something else sought by consumers everywhere: guns and ammo. 

Since the COVID-19 emergency was declared earlier this month, gun stores and firearm dealers throughout the U.S. have reported a large spike in sales, and Wyoming is no exception.

The National Rifle Association has been stoking some of the fears, as evidenced by this statement on its website: “Concerns for personal safety, new limitations on the arrests of criminals in some cities, and potential gun control enacted under the guise of fighting the pandemic have Americans preparing to take responsibility for their own safety.”

In reality, crime is down in many cities since coronavirus hit our shores. And despite his flip-flop-flip reaction to the disease — first it was a hoax, then a war, then time to reopen businesses by Easter — I just can’t see President Donald Trump coming to take everyone’s guns.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, concerned that children out of school could be killed in homes with unsecured guns, issued its own statement. “The unintended consequences of these panic-induced purchases in response to the COVID-19 pandemic could be a tragic increase of preventable deaths for the loved ones these individuals are trying to protect,” wrote Kris Brown, the organization’s president.

I have driven by Rocky Mountain Gun Trader in Cheyenne several times and seen its parking lot overflowing. I stopped and asked the manager about the surge of customers, and the response was a frown and a terse, “We’re not commenting for articles.”

That reaction was generally repeated at three other gun dealers, and I wasn’t even wearing my “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” T-shirt. Fortunately, Casper Star-Tribune reporter Seth Klamann had a better reception.  

“It’s borne out of fear that people are going to go crazy,” Larry Frandson of Cody’s Wyoming Guns and Ammo told Klamann. He reported sales at his store three to five times the normal rate.

Nationally, many of the purchases are being made by first-time gun buyers

 Sorry, I’m not joining the firearm frenzy. If necessary, I will try to fend off any invading hordes by throwing my remaining arsenal of toilet paper rolls at them, hoping they will scurry to collect the bounty as it bounces off my driveway and leave me and my family alone.

That would require me to re-stock, of course. But I’ve been lucky once, and think I could do it again. Anyway, it’s better than literally shooting myself in the foot with my brand-new peacemaker.

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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Sigmund Freud thought that human waste, especially one’s own, due no doubt, to our toilet training customs,. Is associated with filth , and also with money, thus the expressions “filthy rich.” and Pissing it away.” . So as the virus ruins our economies the obvious solution may seem, to the psyche, at least , to be toilet paper., and lots of it. Or something like that.. Dr. Freud? The hoarding of it is definitely nuts. You can use a leaf.