U.S. launches probes as Trump bans hoarding, price gouging to combat coronavirus

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Washington D.C., U.S., March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday to prevent hoarding and price gouging of crucial medical supplies needed to fight the deadly coronavirus, while Attorney General William Barr announced that the Justice Department has already launched hoarding investigations to carry out the order.

“This sends a strong message – we will not let those hoarding vital supplies & price gougers to harm the health of America in this hour of need,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham wrote on Twitter earlier in the evening.

The executive order authorizes the U.S. government to directly target hoarders who may threaten the supply of certain medical supplies that the government has designated as scarce or could be threatened by hoarding or price gauging.

People who accumulate designated supplies beyond levels considered reasonable for personal or business use can be criminally prosecuted.

Barr told reporters at the White House press briefing Monday night that no items have been designated by the government just yet, but investigations into hoarding and price gauging are already underway.

“We have not waited for this order to be signed. We have received evidence recently. We have already initiated investigations of activities that are disrupting the supply chain and suggestive of hoarding,” Barr said, noting the probes are targeting people hoarding on an “industrial scale” or “manipulating the market” for profit.

“If you have a big supply of toilet paper in your house, this is not something you have to worry about. But if you are sitting on a warehouse with...surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door,” he added.

Reporting by Makini Brice and Sarah N. Lynch; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Sandra Maler