Montgomery County businesses charging COVID-19 fees

Have you paid a “COVID-fee?”

Whether it’s to help offset the struggling businesses or help pay for PPE items, like hand-sanitizer, face shields and plexiglass dividers, FOX 5 has been seeing and hearing examples of different “COVID fees” being used across the region. We’re learning there are laws that could be applied to the more expensive ones.

It’s important to read the signs posted by businesses and menu fine prints. FOX 5 visited a restaurant in Montgomery County on Monday, where the fine print included this disclaimer: “To help offset restrictions on our business resulting from the COVID19 crisis, a 4% surcharge has been added to all guest checks.”

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The disclaimer also read: “If you would like this removed, please let us know.”

The stated surcharge was not outlined in the bill. So if you missed the fine print, you likely wouldn’t have known about the surcharge.

From Maryland to Virginia, shoppers in the area have shared information about paying COVID-related fees in restaurants, nail salons, hair salons – one woman told FOX 5 DC on Monday, she was asked to play an extra $20 at her dentist office for a COVID-related fee.

RELATED: Montgomery County phase 2 reopening underway

“When we went to the Chinese spot, it’s usually a couple dollars for our food. It was like 40-something dollars, and we only ordered chicken wings and Lo Mein,” said Xavier Reyes, who then pointed to his partner.

“Same thing with the nail salon,” said his partner, Blessen Hall, “I tried – live in Gaithersburg – I tried to take, I paid, $70 for [her nails].” Hall told FOX 5 she had been told the nail salon would only provide a “gel manicure” for her young daughter, which she says cost $20. Child manicures with paint usually cost around $8, Hall told FOX 5 DC.

RELATED: Montgomery County inspects businesses ahead of phase 2 reopening

“I mean it’s not fair actually, because basically you’re up charging your stuff because you want more money, ‘cause your inventory is still the same price. I’m a chef, so I should know,” said Reyes.

Kate Casey told FOX 5 she had not paid any “COVID fees” as far as she was aware, but would likely support it.

“I haven’t seen any of it, no. (Would you pay it, if you saw it?) Um, depending on the business. Like if it’s a business that I know like requires tips or they make their money off tips, like waiters and stuff like that, I’d be more than happy to pay a certain tipping percentage. It’s just, it’s tough on businesses but it’s important to keep supporting them,” said Casey.

“I think it has to be fair and I don’t know exactly what that fair is. You know, maybe that fair is 5 percent, 6 percent something like that, added expense, if it goes beyond that, then I think it’s gauging,” said Gelbart, who told FOX 5 he would support “fair” added fees.

Neither heads of the associations representing restaurant owners in Maryland and Virginia knew of any one restaurant adding “COVID fees” to the bill, when FOX 5 DC asked via email Monday morning. We were told a “COVID fee” is not something that’s being encouraged by the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

Kathy E. Hollinger, RAMW President & CEO, offered this statement:

"Some businesses and restaurants have started utilizing a 'COVID-19 Fee' as they navigate operations during this precarious time. Operating a small business is already full of costs, fees and hidden financial burdens, and COVID-19 has added additional stress as operations are required to shift and costs have increased due to necessary PPE and cleaning requirements. We understand operators may need to consider how they absorb the additional costs necessary to reopen as many have been struggling and will continue to struggle to keep their doors open."

FOX 5 also asked the area’s attorneys general offices about what fees are legal – and what fees are not. We did not hear back from the Virginia Attorney General’s office in time for this report.

In Maryland on March 19, 2020, Governor Larry Hogan issued an executive order addressing price gouging related to the pandemic. Under the executive order, retailers in the areas listed, which include food, beverages, food, medicine and veterinary care to name a few,  are not supposed to be raising prices that would raise their profit by more than 10%. FOX 5 was told this would apply to “COVID fees.”

In the District of Columbia, we’re told under the District’s consumer protection law, businesses must “clearly and adequately” disclose pandemic-related fees.

The AG offices will investigate complaints.