Online stores for survivalists and preppers have seen a massive uptick in sales as the coronavirus outbreak in the US has worsened — but the interest is not from survivalists or preppers. It’s from people who hadn’t thought of emergency preparations until now.
“What we're seeing now is that people are finally seeing that the world is a fragile place,” Adam Handelsman, a spokesperson for Mira Safety, told BuzzFeed News.
Started a little over a year ago, Mira Safety is an online store that focuses on emergency supplies for forest fires, like respirator masks. Handelsman said the shop is currently running about a three-week back order on all its products, which include military-grade respirators, hazmat suits, and Geiger counters.
Handelsman waved away the notion, however, that it was members of the prepper community who were stocking up in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, which as of Wednesday had reached 128 cases in the US and nine deaths.
“The fact is that the doomsday prepper community that's mocked isn’t buying our product,” he said. “They've had this stuff for years.”
Instead, he said, its customers are people from large cities like New York or San Francisco who have never considered disaster prep before. “I really need to harp on this: Doomsday preppers in America, they're spoofed on, there are shows,” he said. But, “they're ready for this.”
He’s also seen a huge increase in interest in the other survivalist company for which he does public relations: Gladiator Solutions — which sells body armor. “People are getting more concerned about civil unrest,” he said.
Handelsman said the interest has shocked him, and that wealthier customers are clamoring to pay more for supplies that are running low. But Mira Safety hasn’t raised its prices, he said, which has created a secondary market on sites like eBay.
“There are some jagoffs who are buying masks and selling them on eBay and price gouging,” he said. “People are scared. If you look on eBay, they're selling masks for $450.”
That may be a low estimate. As of Wednesday, on eBay, 12 boxes of 20 surgical masks were being sold for $5,000 and a bundle of about a dozen hand sanitizer bottles was going for $3,500. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization reported that a shortage of medical equipment like masks and gloves was endangering health workers worldwide. Both listings were pulled down after they were flagged to eBay by BuzzFeed News.
“We are watching and monitoring the issue closely to ensure safety of our employees and customers across the globe, which has been and will always be our utmost priority. We are taking action both internally and on the marketplace,” an eBay spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
The bidding website has been conducting regular manual sweeps to remove products marketed with the term “coronavirus” for violating its policy against unsubstantiated health claims. It’s also removing items, like masks, that are priced significantly above the standard price.
Keith Bansemer, the president of My Patriot Supply, another disaster prep and survivalist online store that specializes in emergency food and water filtration services, told BuzzFeed News that he’s seen price gouging on eBay and other sites.
Like Mira Safety, My Patriot Supplies is experiencing extreme demand and long shipping delays. Bansemer estimates that the store has been at about 100 times its normal sales volume since February. It had to open a second food-processing facility this week to meet demand. Like Mira Safety, Bansemer said the bulk of the orders aren’t coming from so-called doomsday preppers.
“We're a company that deals with emergency preparedness [and] right now we're working with emergency reactiveness,” he said.
That’s true across the American prepper community. Ron Hubbard, the CEO of Atlas Survival Shelters, a company that builds fallout shelters, tornado shelters, and kinds of cellars, told BuzzFeed News that it’s had an uptick in interest since the outbreak.
“The food business has sold out of supplies, but the shelter sales are not really increasing,” he said. “Long-term survival food is sold out.”
This kind of panicked, sudden curiosity has affected prepper meetups as well. Jason Charles, who runs NYC Preppers, told BuzzFeed News that he expects the spike in interest to end the minute the outbreak wanes, and the community’s reputation to be right back where it started.
“As soon as [the outbreak] passes, we will be back to the ‘crazy people,’” he said. “People are asking responsible questions. Nothing crazy. It’s unnecessary panic, but it’s good to get prepared.”