Nessel fights price gouging on the ‘worst St. Patrick’s Day ever’

Advance photo of MSU students partying prompted AG concerns 

Attorney General Dana Nessel on the consumer protection helpline, March 17, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

A box of gloves cost $19. A package of toilet paper will set you back $40. These are some of the complaints coming into the Michigan attorney general’s office consumer protection hotline in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Advance sat down with Attorney General Dana Nessel Tuesday evening just before she took a few calls with her staff in the consumer protection division, who manned the phones until 11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday.

The consumer protection helpline is 1-877-765-8388 or complaints can be submitted here. A statewide coronavirus hotline is 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.

“Worst St. Patrick’s Day ever,” Nessel said, joking with her staff.

Since concerns over COVID-19 hit Michigan, 309 calls about price gouging and scams have come through the consumer protection division of the attorney general’s office, according to Operations Manager Chad Canfield. On Monday, there were 164 phone complaints. The normal daily call volume is 80.

In the past few days, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has issued executive orders that ban price gouging; limit restaurants to carry-out only and close many businesses through March 30; expand unemployment benefits for those impacted by COVID-19; ban indoor gatherings of more than 50 people; and suspend weight restrictions on vehicles carrying supplies that limit the spread of COVID-19.

Nessel said her office is working to enforce the governor’s executive orders and keep people safe.

Attorney General Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

“When I say our staff is working 24/7, I literally do mean 24/7 with the governor’s office in terms of providing legal advice to all the state agencies and departments,” Nessel said. “Every time there is a new executive order that is floated or an executive directive that is floated, it comes through our staff.”

Nessel said her office can get a call at 10 p.m. for something that needs to be legally proofed and enacted at 8 a.m. — and her office delivers.

“Our first and most important concern is people’s health and their safety and making sure that we save lives and protect lives,” Nessel said.

Across the state, people are buying grocery stores out of their toilet paper, hand sanitizer, pasta, bleach and more preparing for possible quarantines. Businesses have noticed, like Menard’s, where the AG’s office reported 18 complaints from customers that the big box retailer was doubling the price of cleaning products.

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“We’re protecting consumers in this state, ensuring that we don’t have businesses that see the coronavirus as an economic opportunity for themselves, ensuring that consumers can purchase all the goods and products that they need to keep themselves safe,” Nessel said. “And make sure people are not falling subject to predators who want to scam them and take advantage of people and take advantage of this very scary situation by luring them into providing their personal information or financial information.”

Similar to robocalls, individuals need to be weary of predators taking advantage of the current state of fear, Nessel said. Scammers utilize “a flavor of the week” approach to scams whether that be during tax season and now COVID-19.

“People can be taken advantage of like that and that is, of course, even scarier, because people are terrified to become sick or even dying,” Nessel said. “You’re able to manipulate people in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. I think there’s a sense of insecurity out there that is more disturbing and upsetting than we’re normally accustomed to seeing.”

Businesses like Menard’s that appear to be price gouging will be sent a cease and desist letter and have 10 days to respond to the attorney general’s office or be investigated further. The business has the option in that time to agree to an assurance of voluntary compliance with the state.

Nessel: Watch out for coronavirus scams

“What seems to work, almost as well as any court action, is public shaming,” Nessel said. “I think that these businesses should know that their reputations are on the line and at stake. If they’re going to engage in price gouging related behavior, we’re going to be very vocal about it. We’re going to publicize it. They could look at economic losses from customers from the long run because they understand that they’re being taken advantage of by a trusted business that they frequent.”

St. Patrick’s Day

After the Advance published a photo of some Michigan State University students partying on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, Nessel said she called up the university president, the boards and commissions of other universities and the governor to talk about her concerns for St. Patrick’s Day festivities. 

By Monday, all Michigan bars, theaters, casinos and more were closed. And by St. Patrick’s Day, the previous legal number of people legally allowed to gather dropped from 250 to 50, via executive orders.

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

Similar large gatherings were reported on the weekend in places like Greek Town in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Muskegon.

Nessel said almost all of the establishments in East Lansing that people would have gone to for St. Patrick’s Day already had a maximum capacity for occupancy of fewer than 250 patrons. The idea of all of those people within breathing distance would mean “you’re gonna spread this virus like wildfire,” she said.

“Imagine how many people would become infected, just from that one day alone,” Nessel said. “I think the problem is that for a lot of the younger people who tend to frequent the bars more on St. Paddy’s Day is that there’s that sense of invincibility. But what we know is this: Even if you don’t have a compromised immune system, you can still get this. But more likely than that, you’re going to pass it on to somebody else.”

Many public health officials have said that most young, healthy people will be fine with COVID-19; they might not even know they have it. But older individuals, or individuals with respiratory problems or diabetes, are at greater risk of COVID-19 having a more serious impact on them.

A less crowded St. Patrick’s Day gathering near MSU, March 17, 2020 | Susan J. Demas

“What I’ve been saying repeatedly is by not abiding by the governor’s executive order, you could not just be hurting yourself; you could be  hurting somebody that you love. That’s why it’s so incredibly important that these orders be taken incredibly seriously,” Nessel said. “This is very much a bipartisan issue. These orders similarly were executed in states all around the country, red and blue alike.”

On Tuesday, Whitmer called out President Donald Trump for being unprepared for the COVID-19 crisis and not treating it as a serious issue. Trump told a group of governors Monday to gather medical equipment for the pandemic, possibly without federal assistance.

With businesses being shut down by Whitmer’s executive order and people struggling to make ends meet as they take sick days or care for their families, Nessel said the state government is doing all that it can to protect residents.

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“The governor is not taking this lightly, nor is anybody in our office. We understand the significant economic repercussions, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to save lives here,” Nessel said. “Ultimately, eventually we’re hoping that with enough support from federal and state government, these businesses will be back in business one day, but you can never bring a person back from the dead. That’s what we care most about saving people’s lives because it’s literally that’s what it comes down to.”

Nessel said unity is what’s going to make a difference in the upcoming weeks, taking care of each other, not buying out stores so that others can’t buy essentials for their families. The attorney general’s office is working with law enforcement all over the state to enforce the governor’s executive orders. She said it seems like the Legislature is cooperating with these orders and agree they are essential steps to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“We’re doing everything we can; we have to work together on this, because this virus — it’s not a Democratic virus; it’s not a Republican virus; it’s not an independent virus — it affects all of us,” Nessel said. “We all have to work together in concert to try to fight back against the virus and support one another.”