News Story

Never Mind Lockdown, Dentists Shut Down By Demand For Masks

If suppliers could raise prices surgical masks might not disappear so fast

Even before Michigan dentists were mostly shut down by a state executive order, they were struggling to keep their practices open due to the general public’s panic purchasing of surgical masks.

Dentists must use surgical masks under state and federal rules and laws, including regulations set forth by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

But as the COVID-19 coronavirus started dominating news broadcasts in late February, the hoarding of surgical masks became so prevalent that the U.S. Surgeon General addressed it in a Feb. 29 tweet: “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS!”

Dentists, meanwhile, have responded in various ways.

One Michigan dentist used his Facebook account on March 21 to publish a link to a YouTube video about do-it-yourself masks.

Another dentist used a Facebook page for his practice, Mid Michigan Smiles – A Dental Experience, to publish a video about how he is printing reusable N95 masks on a 3D printer.

“[D]entistry didn't create this problem, mass hysteria and fear buying did,” wrote Michigan dentist Nick Ritzema on his Facebook page.

And a Grand Rapids-area dentist took to Facebook on March 16 to ask, “Mask shortages are affecting our Peds office … Any of my DENTAL friends able to help?”

The need for those masks was, for the most part, placed on hold by a state executive order effective the evening of March 21. It cancelled, for the duration of the emergency, any “dental procedure that is not necessary to address a medical emergency or to preserve the health and safety of a patient.”

Statewide shortages of surgical masks may not have been relieved, however, by the Michigan Attorney General’s energetic pursuit of suppliers who raised prices, which otherwise could help maintain uninterrupted supplies of items subject to high demand.

Attorney General Dana Nessel sent a March 18 letter to one company alleged to have committed “price-gouging” by selling respirator masks on eBay.

The company was selling two of the masks for $28.50.

“Given the well-known fears surrounding Coronavirus, it is apparent you were seeking to profit from an evolving public health emergency,” Nessel wrote in her letter.

Nessel told the company that it likely violated Michigan’s Consumer Protection Act, an act which she identified as “Charging the consumer a price that is grossly in excess of the price at which similar property or services are sold.”

Nessel also sent another cease and desist letter on March 27 to a health care industry supplier for allegedly price-gouging. Although, in her letter, the AG admits the company was out of stock of the masks.

In the current coronavirus emergency, toilet paper has been the commodity most associated with quickly emptying store shelves. Merchants have been threatened with fines, jail time and losing their license for using temporary price increases to prevent hoarding by consumers.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.