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A run on face masks has retailers struggling to keep up and EBay battling coronavirus-related price gouging
Chicago Tribune - 3/3/2020
Chicago-area retailers are running low on face masks as consumers worried about contracting coronavirus stock up. One company said it could be a matter of months before some stores replenish their supply.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention isn’t recommending people wear masks to protect themselves from the virus, though people who have the virus should wear them to avoid spreading it. Stores say consumers are snapping them up regardless.
Joe Lomanto, who owns three Ace Hardware stores in Chicago, sold his last box of N95 respirators last weekend despite stocking up in advance, paying extra to ship them in from out-of-state suppliers, and rationing sales to customers to discourage people from hoarding them or reselling them online for a profit.
The respirators have more filtration material than lightweight dust masks. Lomanto’s suppliers told him they hoped to deliver more N95 respirators later this week, but they made no guarantees. Manufacturers also are trying to keep up with demand from healthcare professionals.
“They don’t want to promise until they know more,” he said.
A majority of True Value’s 4,500 stores are also sold out of respiratory masks due to an “industry-wide shortage,” spokeswoman Jennifer Born said.
Chicago-based True Value, which acts as a wholesaler to independently-owned stores, expects to get a shipment of respiratory masks this week and will resupply stores that already placed orders. The company doesn’t expect to receive more masks for at least three months, she said.
Home Depot also rationed N95 respirators, limiting shoppers to 10 packs each, said spokeswoman Margaret Smith. Chicago stores had limited quantities in stock, according to the retailer’s website.
“Our merchandising and supply chain teams are working hard to replenish these items as quickly as possible,” Smith said in an email.
Joliet Professional Pharmacy has been sold out of face masks for about four weeks. “It’s never happened before, which is kind of crazy,” said pharmacy manager Maura Murphy. “Everyone is freaking out about the coronavirus, but what’s crazier is the flu bug is still going around, and people seem to have forgotten about that.”
As of Monday evening, there were 108 cases of coronavirus, known as COVID-19, in the U.S., including those who tested positive by their local health departments and those whose positive results have been confirmed by the CDC.
Five confirmed or probable cases have been reported in Illinois, including the first instance of person-to person transmission in the U.S. The fifth case was reported Tuesday by the University of Chicago Medical Center, which is awaiting lab results to confirm a diagnosis.
Price-gougers have wasted no time looking to take advantage of local consumers worried about the virus. On Craigslist, Chicago-area sellers listed 10-packs of 3M N95 respiratory masks for as much as $140. Home Depot lists the same package at $22.97, but it isn’t sold online and the retailer’s website advised shoppers to call before heading to stores to make sure it was in stock.
On eBay and Amazon, some sellers sought even steeper markups. EBay said it is using both digital surveillance tools and manual checks to remove products marketed with the term “coronavirus,” which violate eBay’s policies against making unsubstantiated health claims. EBay also is removing those with inflated prices, under a policy that prohibits listings that “attempt to profit from human tragedy or suffering.”
While face masks have been selling out the quickest, retailers also are seeing a surge in demand for hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and other household staples.
On Saturday afternoon, an employee at the cash register at the Costco store in North Riverside said he checked out one woman who bought 21 bottles of hand sanitizer. By Sunday evening, a Highland Park Target posted a sign in its window warning shoppers it was sold out of hand sanitizer.
At Purell, employees are working overtime and the company has added shifts to meet a “substantial increase in demand” for products like hand sanitizer, hand sanitizing wipes and surface spray, Samantha Williams, senior director of corporate communications for Purell parent company Gojo, said in a statement.
The spike in demand is on the higher end of what the company has seen during prior outbreaks, but is “not unprecedented,” she said.
Clorox also increased production of disinfecting products, said spokeswoman Naomi Greer. “We continue to believe we can meet the needs of retailers and others,” she said.
Walgreens said it’s maintaining its supply of hand sanitizer and cleaning products, and that shortages on store shelves are temporary.
“We’re continually and closely monitoring the situation, and continue to work with our supplier partners to best meet the needs of our customers,” spokeswoman Alex Brown said in an email.
True Value is “running very low” on hand sanitizer but expects additional shipments will arrive before its warehouse runs out, Born said. Availability may vary by store.
CVS also said it’s restocking stores as fast as possible, but "due to the fluid nature of this issue we don’t have specific timing to provide,” spokeswoman Stephanie Cunha said in an email.
Outdoor retailer REI is working to replenish its stock of dehydrated food amid an increase in sales over the past month.
“While stores and REI.com have some options available, we have been in frequent contact with our vendors about inventory replenishment within the coming weeks,” spokeswoman Megan Behrbaum said in an email.
Despite the efforts to stock up, Lomanto said consumers visiting his store didn’t seem to be too worried about the outbreak yet.
“We’ve seen more panic with snow shovels than with this so far,” he said. “I think people have faith it will work out.”
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