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Densely populated areas like New York have had trouble keeping hand sanitizer in stock for the past week, so the “For Sale” categories on local Craigslist pages have started to look like super-expensive sanitation-themed yard sales. In New York, single eight-ounce bottles of Purell are listed for as much as $25 apiece. A listing from Brooklyn advertises 78 bottles of industrial sanitizer for $750, while a California man is offering to ship 25 single-ounce bottles to New York for $150—which works out to $6 an ounce. “Fight the COVID-19 with easy [sic] and protect yourself and your love ones [sic],” a listing in Queens reads. It also suggests that the buyer use a contactless form of payment, as cash is a vector of disease.
Russ, a 43-year-old IT specialist in Michigan, listed his stock of hand sanitizer on the Craigslist pages for six major cities. I agreed to identify him and others in this story by only his first name because it was the only way he would agree to explain his decision to price-gouge antibacterial gels. Russ offers to ship bottles and accepts cryptocurrency payments. (His area is not yet experiencing a shortage.) When he first heard there might be a demand in some cities, he told me in a phone call, he bought just five bottles and listed them on eBay for $15 each. They sold out within 30 minutes, so he bought 15 more bottles and upped the price to $20. He sold eight of them before eBay announced the ban on hand-sanitizer sales, so now he’s selling the rest of his stock on Craigslist for $25 each.
“I know what you want to ask me. I weighed whether or not this was a moral thing,” he said. “My conclusion was: If I don’t do this, someone else is going to. That allowed me to do it.”
Not everyone shares his assessment. Somebody on eBay messaged him and called him a “dick,” he said, in addition to informing him that God is watching. “I’m not trying to sell someone an eight-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer for $100, which I’ve seen. I’m not a bad person,” Russ said. He argued that the people who are going online to buy hand sanitizer are the same people who are buying out grocery stores, spending thousands of dollars on supplies. If he can make a little money off someone who’s willing to spend any amount to make herself feel safer, who really loses?
Personally, Russ washes his hands and is now avoiding handshakes, but as for hand sanitizer, “you can buy a bottle of vodka and pour it on your hands and it will do the same thing.” (It won’t. Don’t buy a bottle of vodka and pour it on your hands.) “If hand sanitizer somehow became a miracle cure, I would give it away,” he said.
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I contacted half a dozen Craigslist hand-sanitizer sellers, and not all of them were so relaxed. David, a 35-year-old Brooklyn man, told me in a phone call that he had been buying face masks in early January specifically to sell on eBay, but that business dried up after his suppliers stopped being able to fulfill his orders. He’s “a little bit of a prepper,” he said, adding that he’d bought a second freezer so that he could stock up on food in case of a coronavirus lockdown.