Price gouging could cost you $500 during coronavirus outbreak, AG cracking down on large gatherings

Retailers in Michigan are running out of items like hand sanitizer and disenfecting wipes amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Meanwhile, the AG's office has gotten 75 complaints of price gouging | Susan J. Demas

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order Sunday to impose restrictions on price gouging in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan that has risen to 33 positive cases of the coronavirus as of this story’s publication. 

Executive Order 2020-8 restricts businesses or individuals from reselling products at prices grossly higher than the original cost and must not offer products at a price that is more than 20% higher than what the business or individual charged for that product on or before March 9.  

A statewide coronavirus hotline will be open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1-888-535-6136. Information can be found on the DHHS website or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention website.

“In these challenging times, we need to come together as Michiganders. This order will help protect consumers from price gouging,” said Whitmer in a statement. “Additionally, I’m working jointly with the Attorney General to enforce these orders, to protect consumers, and to hold bad actors accountable. We will get through this together.” 

Assistant Attorney General Joe Potchen said the office has received more than 75 price gouging complaints and identified four businesses in violation, to which they have written letters and will be investigating. 

Potchen said the four businesses under investigation include unnamed stores in Ann Arbor, West Michigan, Farmington Hills and Dearborn. The stores were marking up prices on dust masks, hand sanitizer and grocery items. 

“We will not tolerate people attempting to swindle and scam others based on their fears and uncertainties during these trying times,” Potchen said during a press conference Sunday. 

Michigan now has 33 coronavirus cases, many bars still jammed for St. Patrick’s Day weekend

These restrictions on price gouging go into effect on Monday and will remain in effect until April 13. All violations of price gouging are misdemeanors and punishable by fines of up to $500. 

Melanie Duquesnel, president and CEO of Better Business Bureau Eastern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, said it seems to primarily be local shop owners who are price gouging during the panic around coronavirus.

“We believe, based on our initial findings, that it’s local folks trying to take advantage of it without their large corporation understanding that it’s happening,” Duquesnel said Sunday. “So if you see it, bring it to the attention of the retailer’s management team. If they say it is what it is, then by all means, take pictures, get a receipt of it if you want to buy it, but know that there are people here to help you.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel, March 5, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

Also ahead of St. Patrick’s Day on Tuesday, a big bar night across the country, Attorney General Dana Nessel is urging people to practice social distancing and stay home from celebrations. 

“Let’s face it, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. And the message that I want to relay especially to some of the younger folks that are most interested often in going to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations is this: Your actions today affect the futures of your friends and your family members tomorrow.”

On Friday, Whitmer issued an executive order prohibiting all gatherings over 250 people to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Ingham County Health Department Director Linda Vail announced Sunday that licensed food establishments in the county are ordered to reduce occupancy by 50% amid reports of long lines in East Lansing bars for St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

Oakland County ordered on Saturday that starting Monday all restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and gyms will reduce their capacity to 50%, as well. 

Whitmer bans all gatherings of 250+ people to limit coronavirus spread 

“In a public health emergency, we have learned since the executive order that one size does not fit all in establishments to truly create social distancing in our counties and in our communities,” Vail said. “An establishment with a capacity of 250 is still crowded at 250 if they’re allowed in.”

On Sunday afternoon, Nessel said that no establishments have been cited for going against the governor’s order to limit group sizes, but her office will be handling all related cases if they arise.

“My belief is that most proprietors in the industry are good actors and want to be good community members and want to ensure the safety of their patrons and also their employees,” Nessel said. “And we are very hopeful they are going to do the right thing, understand what the right thing is to do and follow the executive order.”

Violations of the executive order is a misdemeanor and could result in the loss of a liquor license.