The Nassau County Department of Consumer Affairs has received more than 350 complaints of price gouging from local businesses and issued more than 70 violations since county executive Laura Curran first encouraged residents to report coronavirus-related price gouging incidents early last month.
With access to sanitary equipment and medical supplies at a premium as coronavirus cases continue to climb, a number of online and physical vendors have been accused of jacking up prices to profit from the pandemic. The county is cooperating with state and federal officials to try and combat the practice.
While the names of businesses accused of price gouging are not being revealed since they are innocent until proven guilty, Curran mentioned one Garden City business received a violation for selling masks at $20 a piece and one business in Plainview was hit for uncertified N95 respirators that should have been pulled from shelves in 2011.
When U.S. Secretary of Health Alex Azar declared a national public health emergency in response to coronavirus at the end of January, it triggered New York State laws prohibiting price gouging in affected areas, which is the whole state.
The actual law on the books in the state leaves the definition of price gouging open to interpretation by the courts. NY General Business Law § 396-r prohibits the selling of goods and services “for an amount which represents an unconscionably excessive price” during significant market disruptions like the one being caused by coronavirus. What exactly constitutes an “unconscionably excessive price,” however, is somewhat open to debate.
“Effectively the standard is you know price gouging when you see it,” Nassau County Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner George May said. “If somebody reports these masks were $10 yesterday and now they’re $11 today, it’s unlikely someone’s going to get a violation from my office for that. If they were $10 yesterday and $150 today, that’s a different story.”
Once the department receives a price gouging complaint, its employees investigate the accused and issue a civil violation that can be contested on several grounds, such as the hike in price being a necessary response to the increased cost of doing business. Vendors issued violations will have the chance to defend themselves in court, although the halt in civil trials due to coronavirus will delay the process more than usual.
The department’s authority to cite vendors extends to online retailers selling to Nassau residents as well. May said the county may work to get repeat offenders delisted from sites like Amazon and eBay.
Anybody who wishes to can email firstname.lastname@example.org to report potential price gouging in the county. The consumer affairs department is encouraging people to report any cases they might suspect so they can more thoroughly investigate the scope of the issue and come to the aid of county residents.