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PD Editorial: Profiteering and hoarding have no place in coronavirus emergency

Is there anyone more despicable than a price gouger? Murderers, rapists and child predators are evil. Their crimes go beyond what the normal person can ever fully understand. Price gougers prey upon a community not out of evil but out of greed. One can grasp the appeal of seizing an opportunity for contemptible profit.

California, like nearly two-thirds of states, prohibits price gouging during an emergency. The law kicked in the moment the state and Sonoma County declared a public health emergency in response to the coronavirus - which causes COVID-19 - outbreak. Retailers may not increase prices by more than 10% on many essential goods and services. Covered items include food and drink, emergency supplies, emergency cleaning materials and medical products.

News accounts include examples such as surgical masks and hand sanitizers increasing in price by 50% and more on some online sites.

Sonoma County takes price gouging very seriously. District Attorney Jill Ravitch is ready to prosecute anyone caught profiteering on people who are frightened or desperate in the face of a global pandemic.

And unlike many communities, Sonoma County has experience dealing with price gouging. After wildfires in recent years, this community saw profiteers prosecuted. One public storage company, for example, paid $140,000 in penalties and costs for violations.

If found guilty of illegally jacking up prices, gougers could be sentenced to one year in jail and fined up to $10,000 as well as facing civil penalties up to $5,000 per violation and mandatory restitution. Those punishments should give even the greediest person pause.

Anyone who encounters price gouging should call the district attorney's office at 707-565-5317.

“But wait,” the most strident free-market libertarians might cry out. “This is just the law of supply and demand. Sellers should charge whatever the market will bear.”

Such naïve reasoning ignores that during a temporary emergency, normal economic patterns break down. Some people might be able and willing to pay $20 for a gallon of gasoline, but they do so not as a free market choice but out of desperation.

Worse, when prices spike unreasonably, some people are denied access to essential goods in the market. Price gouging laws don't apply to ice cream.

Would-be price gougers should worry, too, that customers will remember their decision. The current emergency will pass eventually, but hard feelings about having been ripped off won't. Factor in the potential long-term lost business before inflating prices.

Consumers have some responsibility to their neighbors, too, specifically not to hoard essentials selfishly. Some local stores already have sold out of products like sanitizers, face masks and toilet paper. We're nowhere near mandatory rationing, but some retailers voluntarily are limiting how much people may buy of high-demand products.

Before people buy a hundred rolls of toilet paper and a case of hand sanitizer, they should ask themselves if they really need that much. It's one thing to stock up for supply disruptions that might last a week or a month, but it's selfish to buy so much that it denies other people access to essential products.

The best response to a widespread emergency like a pandemic comes from a community of people where we all - retailers, consumers, everyone - look out for each other. If it's every retailer and consumer for himself or herself, we're all in for a very hard time.

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