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Hand sanitizer frenzy has state officials monitoring price gouging

After positive coronavirus cases, consumers are buying up products. Resellers are charging a fortune.
Efrain Perez, of Palm Harbor, loads a five-pack of Clorox sanitizing wipes after shopping for supplies Monday, March 2, 2020, at Sam’s Club in Clearwater. Perez said this was the last pack in the store and he plans on using the wipes as a countermeasure for exposure to coronavirus.
Efrain Perez, of Palm Harbor, loads a five-pack of Clorox sanitizing wipes after shopping for supplies Monday, March 2, 2020, at Sam’s Club in Clearwater. Perez said this was the last pack in the store and he plans on using the wipes as a countermeasure for exposure to coronavirus. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 3, 2020
Updated Mar. 3, 2020

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The day after two positive coronavirus cases were announced in the Tampa Bay area, residents ran to stores and left them clean of most cleaning supplies.

The rush for goods resembled the frenzy before a hurricane, with people stocking up on canned goods, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and other products they feared they may need in case of an emergency quarantine.

Gov. Ron DeSantis directed a public health emergency on Sunday, but unlike a hurricane, a public health emergency doesn’t fall into the state law that prohibits price gouging.

But the Florida Attorney General’s office will still “aggressively pursue any misleading marketing regarding health claims or scams during this public health emergency,” said department spokeswoman Kylie Mason.

Mason wrote in an email that the office is reaching out to retailers to make sure Floridians can afford health products, and that their office will pursue any complaints they find actionable despite it falling outside the state of emergency law.

State statutes say price gouging is for any necessary good during a declared state of emergency. In most cases, if the price of a product or service “grossly exceeds” the average price it would have been 30 days prior to the emergency, it’s illegal.

The department has received nine complaints so far about price gouging related to coronavirus, most of which mention the cost of items skyrocketing on Amazon. Mason said the office reaches out to Amazon with complaints about the company.

Private sellers on Amazon charged hundreds of dollars for hand sanitizer and face masks.

Two 8-ounce bottles of Purell were being sold for $99. Six two-ounce bottles of sanitizer, travel sizes smaller that fit into your palm, were listed at $50.

An Amazon spokesperson said their teams work constantly to monitor prices and make sure sellers don’t break their fair pricing policy. The spokesperson said vendors who violate that are being suspended or removed.

“There is no place for price gouging on Amazon,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “We are disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis and, in line with our long-standing policy, have recently blocked or removed tens of thousands of offers. We continue to actively monitor our store and remove offers that violate our policies.”

Area doctors said at this point the threat level is low and people don’t need to create a reserve of food and supplies.

Michael Coon, a professor of economics at the University of Tampa, said it’s natural for people to worry they won’t be able to access products later and hurry to the store to prepare.

Coon said he has a love-hate relationship with the term ‘price gouging,' because he said some of it is supply and demand at work. However, he said, some people do exploit the system.

“There’s an increase in demand for the goods, so in a market system there’s a natural tendency for a price to rise,” Coon said. “Now how far it rises, you can argue whether or not we reach the gouging level.”

He said some level of price increase can help people rationalize and consider if they’re overbuying items, possibly limiting access for other people who need it.

“People may buy more than what they need and hoard supplies,” he said.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: What you need to know after Florida’s first positive coronavirus cases.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

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