We’ve all seen it on our most recent trip to the grocery or big box store: empty shelves where our favorite brand of tissues, toilet paper, or paper towels once sat. If you’re fortunate enough like I was this morning, there’s a handful of paper products on the shelf, but only if you’re an early bird and arrive at 8 a.m. The same goes for hand sanitizer and most liquid soaps.

Hoarding has become a hot topic amid the coronavirus outbreak, almost as much as the illness itself. On Monday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing Attorney General Bill Barr to investigate growing evidence of price gouging and hoarding in recent weeks, mainly on sanitizers and medical supplies.

“Once specific materials are so designated, persons are prohibited from accumulating those items in excess of reasonable personal or business needs or for the purpose of selling them in excess of prevailing market prices,” Barr said.

No materials have been designated as scarce as of yet, Barr said. He added that the order doesn't apply to consumers or businesses stockpiling supplies for their own operations.


That gets back to my trip to the big box store. Many retailers are posting signs in specific aisles instructing customers they will be limited to one package of certain items, such as toilet and tissue paper, paper towels, hand sanitizers, rubbing alcohol, and others. While I observed many other shoppers following these rules as I was, several others were not. One person had at least five packages of paper towels in their cart; another, four.

I casually joked to one employee, “I guess they lost count?” The employee provided some perspective: “It’s difficult to say ‘no.’ Are they loading up? Probably. But maybe it’s the first time they’ve found what they’re looking for in weeks. So they buy a bunch now and won’t come back for a while. You just don’t know.”

It’s a fair point, and why these informal purchasing rules are just so hard to enforce. Amid this outbreak, I’ve seen tremendous compassion at the store, including multiple occasions when I and others pitched in to cover the cost of paper and reusable bags for people who didn’t have enough cash on hand for all their groceries. Looking the other way on the “one-for-one” rule is another example of this type of kindness, even if some are taking advantage of it.

In the end, it’s up to each of us to do what’s best for all of us. Governor Andrew Cuomo probably said it best last week, however, when he assured the supply chains for grocery stories and essentials are intact, and concluded, “There’s no reason to buy 100 rolls of toilet paper.”