On the afternoon of March 23, 2020, United States Attorney General William Barr participated in the Coronavirus Task Force press briefing. Attorney General Barr revealed that, on March 23, President Trump issued an executive order allowing prosecution of hoarding that threatens the supply of necessary medical and health resources.[1] Once specific materials are designated as scarce by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), individuals are prohibited from accumulating these items in excess of reasonable personal or business needs or for the purpose of selling these items in excess of prevailing market prices. As a result of this executive order, it is a crime to engage in this prohibited activity.

This is the second executive order addressing the allocation of health and medical resources. On March 18, 2020, President Trump signed an executive order under the Defense Production Act (the Act) of 1950, as amended (50 U.S.C. 4501 et seq.), and section 301 of title 3, United States Code permitting the Secretary of Health and Human Services to use the authority under section 101 of the Act, in consultation with the Secretary of Commerce and other executive department and agency leaders, to control the distribution of materials needed to respond to the pandemic – including personal protective equipment and ventilators.

At the March 23 press conference, Attorney General Barr announced that the DOJ will continue to work with HHS on these issues. The DOJ has created a national task force on supply chain issues, including hoarding and price gouging, and has designated a lead prosecutor in each of the 93 Offices of United States Attorneys across the nation. Attorney General Barr said, “If you are sitting on warehouses of surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door.” The government task force created to review price gouging was covered in the March 23 blog post titled Protection of Consumers and the Public in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

On March 22, 2020, the DOJ announced that it took its first action in federal court to combat fraud related to the pandemic. The DOJ filed an enforcement action in Austin, Texas, against operators of a fraudulent website that claimed to offer consumers access to World Health Organization kits for a $4.95 shipping charge payable by credit card. There is currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccine. U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman issued a temporary restraining order requiring that the registrar of the fraudulent website immediately take action to block public access to the website.

[1] Chalfant, Morgan, Trump signs executive order to prevent price gouging, hoarding of medical supplies (March 23, 2020) (https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/489125-trump-signs-executive-order-to-prevent-price-gouging-of-medical).