Post #565: Shopping etiquette in the time of COVID-19

Source:  Amazon.

These are my rules for grocery shopping, for the time being.  I may update this as I fine-tune my technique.

  1. Go infrequently and make a list.
  2. Ask friends if they need anything.
  3. Wash thrice:  Before you go, when you get home, and after unpacking.
  4. Take a page from the newspaper (to cover the handle of the shopping cart).
  5. Keep your distance.
  6. If you gotta cough … stay the hell out of my grocery store.
  7. Shop with your eyes.  You touch it, you bought it.
  8. Frozen food/dairy case/anything requiring you to touch a handle goes last.
  9. Now one hand is dirty (and/or, now use your hand sanitizer)
  10. If you’re not the one packing, leave your bags at home.
  11. Cash or charge:  Touch screens, signature blocks, styluses, and the like.
  12. Now both your hands are dirty (and/or use your hand sanitizer)
  13. Chat with your cashier, but … don’t thank them for being there.
  14. Optionally:  Quarantine your groceries.

FWIW, Item 6 is something that I originally entitled:  Coughing at the grocery store is the new farting in an elevator.  If you can’t keep that particular orifice shut, then just don’t go there.  That’s based on an anecdote given below.  Trust me on this, if you cough, you’re going to get some hard looks, no matter how politely you do it.

These items, and why I continue to shop in person, are explained below.

If you think I’m being overly fastidious, just repeat the phrase “Boomer remover” a few times.

Continue reading Post #565: Shopping etiquette in the time of COVID-19

Post #564: A few random bits of good news


Terminator 2: No fate but what we make

Source:  Flickr.

In the US, we’ve reached the (completely predictable, Post #550) part of the pandemic where the case counts are rising rapidly.  And so, all you are going to see in the news is … well … that.  Every possible variation of … that.

Despite the fact that it’s not really news.  Despite the fact that almost every Western nation has experienced/is experiencing some variation of that exact same curve.  Yes, we’re still on the uphill slope of the curve (below).  And by any reasonable estimate, it’s still too early for us to hit the “inflection point” — the top of the hill, in the curve below.  So we’re going to be going up that curve for a while yet.

And, as of this morning, the US case count is far higher than my naïve prediction of 10,000 from Post #550.  But there’s no way to tell whether that’s due to the lack of testing early on in the US, or to truly more rapid spread of cases here than in other countries.  Or a generally crappy prediction methodology.   Or some combination of those.

But I ran across three things yesterday that lifted my spirits a bit.  I thought I’d share.

Shopping therapy

I have been food shopping at the Pan Am Safeway, out of long habit.  Keeping it to once a week.  (And I respect those who are opting for grocery delivery for the time being, despite that service being in exceptionally high demand at present.)

But even before the coronavirus, the workers there had a hard time keeping the Safeway stocked.  By the end of a typical Saturday, the shelves usually looked pretty moth-eaten.

It’s stressful enough to go food shopping.  Make your list, wash your hands, maintain appropriate social distance, don’t touch your face, stifle any urge to cough/sneeze/clear your throat, don’t handle things except to put them in your cart, get home, wash your hands, put away the groceries, wash your hands.

And then wash your hands again, because, eh, it can’t hurt.

I haven’t reached the point of washing canned goods and such, but that’s because most of mine will sit on the shelf for quite a while before being used.  And I don’t wear a mask — yet — because my guess at odds says I ought to keep whatever stock I have of those, for the time being.  But I respect those who do.

So it’s not exactly an ordeal, but it’s hardly anyone’s idea of a good time.

The sight of empty shelves, and inability to get everything on the list, just adds to the stress. This, despite the fact that intellectually, I am absolutely sure there has been no material interruption in the grocery store supply chain thus far.  But some things are just not rational.  Maybe it’s the primordial fear of starvation.

Which is kind of hilarious, given that I could probably live off my body fat alone for the better part of a year.  The rule of thumb is that a pound of body fat provides about 3500 calories.  Or about two day’s worth of energy once your metabolism shuts down and goes into starvation mode.  Have you thanked your love handles lately?

Another weird plus of grocery shopping in the coronavirus era is that I have learned to stifle a sneeze — without touching my face — merely by thinking about it, really hard.  As in OMG, I’m in a grocery store, I can’t sneeze here.  Old dog, new trick.

Yesterday I decided to try Fresh Market, just to see what the littlest and least-used grocery store around looked like.  It was a pleasant surprise.  It was not exactly fully-stocked, but … pretty close.  It was almost like a regular, normal trip to the grocery store.   They had some of everything that was on my list, and the bare shelves were few and far between.

It’s not a cheap place to shop, by any means.  But as a form of therapy, yesterday, it was well worth the expense.  I talked to the clerk as I was checking out, and their produce, milk, eggs, etc. were wiped out by the the 3/14/2020 weekend panic shopping.   Just like everybody else’s.  But for whatever reason, they have their store largely back in good order.  I didn’t see any TP, but I honestly don’t even know if they carry it.

Anyway, it was a much-needed bit of near normalcy.

As an afterthought, I’ve been trying to figure out why this is so.  Why Fresh Market looks so much better than Safeway at this point.  One possibility is purely physical:  It’s a small, well-staffed store, with limited stock of each item, and so fewer total boxes are required to restock it.   (As opposed to Safeway, which is gargantuan and was thinly-staffed at the best of times.)  So their net-time-to-restock is lower.  Maybe it’s just lightly used, and people are such creatures of habit that nobody would try shopping in anything but their “regular” store?  But it also occurs to me that stores might be giving home-delivery orders first pick for scarce items.  If I were in their shoes, that’s exactly what I’d do.  Safeway has its own dedicated home-delivery service, while Fresh Market only has Instacart.  So maybe, in part, I’m seeing the fact that Fresh Market doesn’t really have home delivery as a major portion of its business?  No way to tell at this point.


Parts of China not badly hit by the virus are reported returning to near-normalcy

Count of daily increase in COVID-19 cases in China.  Source:  World Health Organization report on coronavirus in China, see Post #551.

Recall that they only hit their inflection point (the peak of the hill depicted above) at the end of January.  Less than two months later, and the reports are trickling out that areas that were not badly hit by this are returning to near-normalcy.  E.g., schools have reopened.

No way to tell yet whether we’ll follow that curve or not.  Authoritarian regimes can do a lot more to keep people isolated when necessary.  On the other hand, they spent a couple of months just figuring out what this was.  Plausibly, they may have actually fumbled around for longer than we did.  (Which doesn’t excuse us, since they didn’t know what it was and we did, but facts are facts.)

And the understanding of this continues to improve.  For example, the WHO report on China (Post #551) said that there was no approved treatment, in China, at that time.  That report is less than a month old.  But as of a few days ago, China had approved one cheap, easily-manufactured, currently available, largely obsolete, but apparently effective drug for this (Post #562).  One that physicians can use right now.

An extended rant on chloroquine/hydroxychloroquine.  Sure, some dumbass who knows nothing about viral infections or arithmetic was touting this as some sort of miracle that would stop the epidemic.  But, as Einstein is reported to have said, “There are only two things that are infinite — the universe and human stupidity — and I’m not so sure about the first one.”  So don’t let the presence of basic ignorance at the highest level of government allow you to dismiss this.  To be clear,  at present, hydroxychloroquine is a treatment for those who are already sick.  Which, pretty much by definition, ain’t going to stop the spread of the disease.  It has not been subject (yet) to a large-scale randomized controlled trial of effectiveness.  Further, it doesn’t cure anyone.  All it can do, at best, is reduce the severity of the illness somewhat, presumably by blocking some step in the replication of the virus.  Again, somewhat.  But that, by itself, will be extremely helpful in avoiding exceeding the capacity of the US hospital system, because reducing severity and duration of illness probably a) helps avoid some hospitalizations all together, b) helps avoid ICU use within hospitalizations, and c) reduces length-of-stay and so frees up hospital beds sooner.  Finally, it is being tried on an experimental basis to see if it can reduce the likelihood of infection within a family, of which at least one member is known to have the virus.  So if that latter use actually pans out, it might — emphasis might — play a minor role in preventing some of that second phase of disease spread, the one the WHO report characterizes as being within family units.  That said, despite all limitation and caveats, assuming it works as it currently appears to, it beats the hell out of having nothing but folk medicine (Post #552) on hand to treat this.  And that’s something to be thankful for.

I’m not going to give citations to particular reports.  I’m just saying that amid the relentless pounding of bad news about coronavirus, you might want to Google “china return to normal”.  Clearly there’s some propaganda mixed in with the truth.  And “normal” is not “the same as it was before coronavirus”.

But if we can just keep our act together, we might be able to do as well as the Chinese.  Maybe even better.  That’s an OK thought.

Virginia’s not so badly off, Fairfax County included.


I realize that, as a retiree, I don’t really have to face the worst of this.  Other than having my brother joke in an email about this virus being renamed “boomer remover”.

That said, while case counts continue to rise, in absolute numbers, things still look fairly manageable.  The graph above looks awful until you focus in on the scale at the left.  Yesterday, there were 34 new cases reported in Virginia.  In the entire commonwealth.  You have to keep the current scale of this in perspective.

Anyway, as my wife and I were out walking yesterday, we happened to meet a couple of folks.  (We chatted a while, carefully maintaining the required 6′ distance.)  One of whom works with the local ambulance providers.  I have a handful of those N95 masks (mine are P95 for lead paint, but same difference).   I asked if I ought to donate those to the Vienna VFD.  And the answer was, no, there’s no supply problem here, right now.  Just hang onto them.

So even as I am not facing a lot of the problems that working people now face, we in this community are not even close to hitting the real horror show that is now going on in parts of Italy.  And if we can just keep our act together, there’s no reason we should have to.

Post #563: We need a TP FDIC, or, hoarding is a self-fulfilling prophecy


Ask not why the shelves are bare

I’ve been reading up on toilet paper.  Many, many pundits seem to be straining to find some logical reason why the TP shelves are bare.

As a person with a lifetime fascination with panics and manias, let me save everybody some time on that one:  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  There doesn’t need to be any reason whatsoever. 

You can go back to the Johnny Carson affair (reference Snopes) to realize that you don’t need even the tiniest bit of fundamental problem or rational thinking whatsoever to have a shortage like this.

All it takes is the perception that other people are hoarding, and that there might be a shortage, and … bam … that causes a shortage at the grocery store.  Take a nervous public, add a rumor, stir gently, and stand back.

And it’s totally self-reinforcing, because, regardless of your beliefs about whether or not a toilet paper shortage is rational, if you don’t go out and get some toilet paper, well, you can’t.  You, as a member of the public, must either participate in the panic buying or do without.

And so, a full and complete explanation consists of this:

Toilet paper is being hoarded because toilet paper is being hoarded. 

Really, seriously, it doesn’t need to go an inch deeper than that.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)

And so it is with bank runs.  Or, rather, was.  Just the rumor that a bank (or equivalent) was insolvent would cause clients to withdraw so much money that … the bank became insolvent.  Absolutely didn’t matter if the rumor was well-founded or not.

Bank runs were a fairly routine occurrence prior to the Great Depression.  Banking panics significantly deepened many recessions in that period.  Surely you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life.

For the technically-minded, common usage is that a “run” is on an individual institution, whereas a “panic” occurs when that same phenomenon happens to the entire banking system.

That more-or-less completely ended with the creation of the FDIC (and its extinct cousin, the FSLIC).  As with any type of insurance, there was significant risk of “moral hazard”, which is the best way to describe the Savings and Loan crisis (and death of the FSLIC).

But, love it or hate it, the FDIC put an end to bank runs.  An agency of the Federal government guaranteed that you’d get your money back.  And people lost their fear.  US Bank runs stopped (virtually completely).  And, more recently, that became a “full faith and credit” entity of the US government.

Toilet paper shortage. Bank run.  Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.  Why do we have one, right now, and not the other?  FDIC.

Who will be the FDIC of TP?

There is a serious point here, somewhere, that has me thinking about this.  The serious point is that I can’t quite figure out how long the shelves are going to remain bare of TP.

I’m in a hurry this AM so I’m going to say a few things next that are true, but without citation as to source.

First, at present, there is absolutely no interruption of the supply chain for TP.  For a host of good economic reasons (high bulk, low value) almost all American TP is made in the USA.

Second, because toilet paper demand is (normally) so stable, there’s almost no slack in the toilet paper supply chain.  It has what economics call inelastic short-run supply.  By and large, factories routinely run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  They can tweak that a bit, but that’s all.

Third, I am afraid that whether or not the TP shelves refill will depend on whether or not the TP shelves refill.  That if people continue to see bare shelves, they’ll snatch up TP whenever they see it available.  That “shortage mentality” will become the rule here.

So I come down to my final question:  Who (or what) will be the equivalent of the TP FDIC.  What entity can step up and guarantee you a roll or two, if you run out?  That might break the back of the current panic-buying mentality in this area.

Let me emphasize that I’m totally serious about this.  I don’t want the potentially humorous nature of the product in question to obscure the fundamental economics of the situation.  Fear itself is adequate to prolong this situation for months.  And right now, we really don’t need to be worrying about whether we’ll be able to wipe our butts, three months from now.

For myself, I’m just trying to take life one roll at a time.

Post #562: Three rays of light on finding effective anti-viral drugs

An new antiviral drug proven effective in humans

My wife passed this on to me.  As it is not from a US newspaper, I thought it was worth sharing.

The Chinese government has reported identifying antiviral drug that is “clearly effective” for coronavirus (COVID 19).  Link is to the Guardian article is here.  This is billed as a clinical trial, so that seems like the real deal (i.e., randomized controlled clinical trial). Continue reading Post #562: Three rays of light on finding effective anti-viral drugs

Post #560: Real backpackers don’t use toilet paper: The arithmetic of panic shopping


First, a brief public service announcement, prompted by my visit to the Pan Am Safeway two days ago.  The T.P. aisle was bare.  For those of us with standard American T.P. anxiety, note that a) 70% of the world’s population doesn’t use toilet paper, b) neither do hard-core backpackers, these days, and c) you can buy (or for that matter, easily improvise) a “handheld bidet“.

And that’s more than enough said about that.

But what about panic shopping in general?  When will it end, has it already ended, will it end?  Really, the underlying question is, when will we stop seeing empty store shelves?

I was asked this question yesterday, and I’m not quite sure what to say about it.  But that won’t stop me from writing. Continue reading Post #560: Real backpackers don’t use toilet paper: The arithmetic of panic shopping

Post #559: The intermediate and long run for COVID-19


Original graph source:  NPR.  Red X is not part of original graph.

If you read these posts, you’ve probably already figured out that this is not a “fun” website.  Or if not, you will shortly.

Edit:  Apparently the Feds came to this conclusion about six days ago, but that has only just today leaked out, per this NY Times article.  Take a peek at the US government response plan referenced in the NY Times article (.pdf).  Assuming that’s not a hoax, if that doesn’t make you say “oh, crap”, you’re not paying attention. Continue reading Post #559: The intermediate and long run for COVID-19

Post #558: What are the odds …

… that a randomly-chosen seemingly-healthy adult in Virginia is infected with coronavirus.  All other things being equal.

For example, suppose that a stranger accidentally brushed up against your hand at the store.  Is that tantamount to attempted murder?  Or is it more likely just a harmless social faux pas?

Here’s my estimate, based on facts I’ve presented in various recent posts. Continue reading Post #558: What are the odds …

Post #556: RESCINDED: Mail-in absentee ballot, can anything be done?

I take this all back.   My wife just found a story in today’s news stating that Department of Elections will allow anyone to use a mail-in ballot, in light of the epidemic.  Use Reason 2A.  Those are now official instructions from the Commonwealth.

This is the reference.

Skip the rest of this. Continue reading Post #556: RESCINDED: Mail-in absentee ballot, can anything be done?