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KEY WEST, FLORIDA - MARCH 25: Empty shelves are seen where toilet paper normally is kept when people stocked up as the city government continues to take steps to fight the coronavirus outbreak on March 25, 2020 in Key West, Florida. Most tourists have left Key West as the city closed hotels or short-term vacation rentals and asked restaurants to only serve take-out. Beaches and parks have been closed and starting Friday non-residents may not enter without proof of employment or property ownership in the Florida Keys as city officials attempt to contain COVID-19. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Even before the coronavirus hit our shores, we were seeing photos from other countries other empty shelves in stores that were sold out of toilet paper. And eventually, once the pandemic hit the U.S., so did the toilet paper shortage. But what’s really behind the scarcity of toilet paper? Does the coronavirus make people need more toilet paper? Is there any reason to believe that we will run out of toilet paper?

The truth is a bit less dramatic. Medium reports that there are essentially two separate toilet paper industries: one catering to the commercial market (ie public places, including most people’s places of work) and consumer (in other words, what you buy at the store for your home). The pandemic has shifted most of the demand to the latter. With so much of the U.S. population under stay-at-home orders, Americans are no longer using the restrooms at their workplace, in schools, at restaurants, at hotels, or in airports, and all of those places likely have big surpluses of toilet paper right now. And it’s not easy to divert the commercial supply to retail locations that people shop at for their homes. Besides that, the rolls aren’t even the same size (most public bathrooms use much larger toilet paper dispensers than what homes typically have).

The New York Times reports that toilet paper takes up so much room, storing large quantities is not profitable, so the industry typically has only a few months of inventory on hand. While retailers are working to keep up with demand, it seems likely that the situation will go back to normal when the rest of the world does: in other words, when people get back to work and school, there will be a lot of toilet paper waiting for them, and at that point, the retailers will have the amount that fits the demand.