A liquor store in Fresno, California has been hit with a $10,000 fine after allegedly price gouging by attempting to sell bottled water at inflated prices during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
City officials say that the store was selling 24-packs of bottled water for $16 each, around four times the normal cost. The city fined a Super Liquor store $10,000 on Thursday, after it had been investigated along with at least 53 other stores that received price gouging complaints. The store was one of hundreds where city officials posted mandatory signs warning against price gouging.
“We sent 90 code officers throughout the community to post these signs in the windows,” Fresno City Councilmember Mike Karbassi told Newsweek over the phone. “This location had a sign posted in the window and we kept getting reports that they were charging $16 for water. So, a grandmother, for example, who wants to go buy water in a time of need has to pay $16 if she can’t find it somewhere else.”
Undercover purchases also revealed that the store may have engaged in discriminatory pricing by charging different amounts for the same products to different people, according to Karbassi.
Fresno recently passed an ordinance placing a freeze on prices stores are able to charge for goods during the pandemic, not to exceed 10 percent more than what stores were charging on March 4.
California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide “shelter in place” order on Thursday night and all non-essential businesses have been ordered closed. With many residents now being forced out of work and likely to be struggling financially, Karbassi feels that price gouging is particularly intolerable.
“We’ve had to close businesses down. There are people at home that are not making an income until we get relief from the federal and state government,” Karbassi said. “We have to send a message that we’re not going allow them to be taken advantage of.”
Store owner Ravinder Singh reportedly disputes the allegation, claiming he isn’t being treated fairly while planning to fight the fine with the help an attorney.
“Everyone is trying to get out and front and do the right thing, which is good and noble, but at what cost?” Singh told The Fresno Bee. “They’re accusing someone of something without providing fair evidence or giving them due process.”
Karbassi said that Singh has a right to due process but believes the evidence against him is clear and insisted the shop owner was given the penalty after ignoring warnings about the inflated prices.
Nearly all of the other stores investigated were said to have complied with the city’s rules, although one ampm convenience store was fined $1,000 after the city’s mandatory signage was taken down.
Price gouging has become a common concern in the U.S. and around the world during the pandemic, with unscrupulous individuals frequently hawking sought-after items like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for prices far beyond normal levels to desperate customers.
Although the practice continues to take place at brick-and-mortar stores, it has been more widespread online. Major retailers like Amazon and eBay have instituted policies against price gouging but new listings for the overpriced items are often posted faster than they can be taken down.
A majority of states already have laws that prohibit price gouging during times of emergency. Additional legislation has been introduced or passed by several state and local governments specifically in response to the pandemic. A bipartisan bill that would ban the practice at the federal level was also introduced in the House last week.