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Nassau issues $1.15 million in fines for price-gouging related to COVID-19

The Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building on

The Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building on May 1, 2019. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Nassau County has issued $1.15 million in fines for 256 price-gouging violations stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, including sale of protective N95 masks for $20 each and a 4-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer for $10, new county data shows.

The largest offender was a Plainview warehouse store, which was fined a total of $173,000 for 45 price-gouging violations, officials said. A convenience store chain with locations across the county was fined $95,000 for 19 violations, while a supermarket with locations in Hicksville and New Hyde Park was fined $52,800 for 13 violations, according to the county Office of Consumer Affairs.

Other violations included sale of N95 protective masks at a Valley Stream convenience store for $20 apiece, and for $15.95 each at a Syosset card store, officials said. 

Hand sanitizer went for $6.99 for a 4-ounce bottle at a West Hempstead gas station; $7 for a 3-ounce bottle at a Hempstead pharmacy; and $10 for a 4-ounce bottle at a dollar store in Elmont.

"I understand in the supply chain costs are higher from warehouses, and retailers may have to do slight increases or sometimes significant increases," Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said. "When those increases get too high it is unethical. We're talking about people losing their jobs and losing their paychecks, and then they have to pay unethical amounts for protective gear. That's just an outrage."

Suffolk County has issued no price-gouging fines, although 83 complaints have been investigated, county spokesman Derek Poppe said. Nassau has received 782 complaints since March 9, when Curran announced an email address for reporting complaints: pricegouging@nassaucountyny.gov.

Nassau County officials declined to name the violators because their cases have not been adjudicated. Each violation of the unfair trade practices law can result in a $5,000 fine.

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Gregory May, commissioner of the Office of Consumer Affairs, said violations have been issued frequently for the sale of individual protective masks, often in a plastic bag or plastic wrap.

Such items, he said, are opened and thus "not new," May said.

"If the stores are representing that these products are new when they are opened and handled, that’s a violation,” he said.

Also, "it's not clear to us who’s doing that and what personal protective equipment they're wearing" when they divide up such items, May said.

Also, in some stores there are no prices posted for some items, officials said.

"They can kind of just make it up as they go along, which is what they're doing," said Ken Heino, acting deputy commissioner of Consumer Affairs.

Vendors who dispute the violations may attend pretrial settlement conferences, and if the matter can't be settled a judge will review the case.

Last month, federal authorities charged a Woodbury man with illegally hoarding and price-gouging more than 4 tons of personal protective equipment. The charge against Amardeep Singh, 45, was the first in the nation under the Defense Production Act, according to Eastern District United States Attorney Richard Donoghue. Officials said Singh operates a retail store in Plainview and a warehouse in Brentwood, as well as in online stores.

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