Are N95 Masks Essential Goods Covered by State Price Gouging Laws?

Should state laws prohibiting price gouging on essential goods and services apply to individual consumer purchases of N95 masks? The New York state law prohibits unconscionably excessive prices for “consumer goods and services vital and necessary for the health, safety and welfare of consumers.” My question arises because the CDC does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including coronavirus (COVID-19). On the theory that the CDC would not discourage consumers from using a good “vital and necessary for the health … of consumers,” N95 masks must not be such a good and therefore not covered by the New York law.

State laws differ, so this specific line of argument does not apply against all state laws or regulations against price gouging. For example, in Tennessee the emergency declaration specifically identified medical supplies as covered, so whether or not they are supplies vital to the health of consumers may not matter. Still, if I were a merchant charged with price gouging on N95 mask sales to the general public, this may be a useful defense.

Note that federal price gouging enforcement under Defense Procurement Act authority explicitly covers N95 respirators. (N95 respirators were one part of the case in the first DPA enforcement action.)