Over 1,000 people attended a virtual town hall hosted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., along with the state attorneys general from Minnesota, New York, Michigan and Vermont on Thursday evening. Sanders led a discussion about the responsibilities of state attorneys general during the COVID-19 crisis, how states are handling the novel coronavirus, the load on medical systems and how citizens are being affected by the recession that spurred from the pandemic.

Sanders opened the town hall by expressing appreciation for healthcare workers and addressing  economic issues facing the nation. 

“I want to take this moment to thank all of those incredible people in every state who are putting their lives on the line as we speak to protect us, to keep us healthy and to keep our economy going,” Sanders said. “As a United States senator, at least some of us, I cannot speak for the whole Senate, are more than aware not only of the pandemic, but of the economic meltdown which is now taking place.” 

Keith Ellison, Minnesota attorney general, spoke after Sanders. He assured listeners that attorneys general are working to mitigate widespread issues including price gouging and evictions.

“A lot of Americans would like to know who’s fighting, who’s on the front line for Americans, and I want to assure them that progressive attorney generals are there,” Ellison said. “(There are) a whole range of things happening with Americans as they try to tread water and stay alive in this moment. We have been busy and I just want folks to know that they can call us.” 

Letitia James, New York attorney general, addressed racial and socioeconomic discrepancies the pandemic has exposed in New York state. 

“As you know, unfortunately, New York has been the epicenter of COVID-19 and while our state has been fully mobilized to address the public health crisis, my office has been fully mobilized to protect individual rights,” James said. “Fortunately, this crisis has revealed the fault lines along race and socioeconomic status and I am concerned about others who are in a position of power who are exploiting this public health crisis as an excuse to push a regressive, an oppressive and a suppressive political agenda.” 

T.J. Donovan, Vermont attorney general, addressed the importance of consumer protection, noting some vital medical supplies have been marked up as much as 2,000 percent. 

“This is about consumer protection and making sure people are getting a fair deal, not getting ripped off,” Donovan said. “It’s about what is fair and what is unfair and I think when you mark up the cost of surgical masks that are going to our frontline healthcare workers to the tune of at best 500 percent and at worst 2,000 percent, that is fundamentally unfair and I will go to court everyday of the week to make sure that we are protecting the folks who are putting their lives on the line to protect us.” 

Dana Nessel, Michigan attorney general, spoke about COVID-19’s economic impacts in Michigan and in particular the effects of price gouging on the state. 

“We’ve been particularly hard hit,” Nessel said. “We have price gouging at a level we have never seen before. In a typical year we would get 80 price gouging complaints, and in the last month, we’ve gotten more than 4,000 in our state.”

Nessel also addressed Vermont’s insufficient personal protective equipment problems and said some suppliers are supplying fake masks to residents and companies in Michigan.  

“We're seeing people who are suppliers who are offering fake N95 masks,” Nessel said. “They are not legitimately N95 masks and they are being marketed as though they (are). That is a very dangerous situation. It’s not just that they are being ripped off, it's that they are being put in this very dangerous situation.” 

Ellison said it is the state attorneys general duty during this time to ensure their state’s citizens obtain fairly priced supplies.

“All over this country what we see is attorney generals stepping up and fighting this pandemic exploitation,” Ellison said. “We’re the ones bringing the cases, we’re the ones raising the issues, we're bringing the lawsuits and the letters of warning to knock it off and it's a critical role that we're playing.” 

Ellison also addressed the nationwide rise in racism as a result of the pandemic and strongly condemned the violence growing increasingly apparent in the past few months. 

“This virus is not the Chinese virus, it’s the novel coronavirus,” Ellison said. “There are legitimate complaints to be made about the government of China or any government, that’s fine, that’s criticizing the government action or inaction, but the people — no. We need to hang together, (and) we need solidarity right now.”

Nessel thanked first responders and called attention to their unfair treatment.  

“We have had correction officers who have died (in Michigan), police officers who have died and I think half of the Detroit police department was diagnosed as being COVID-19 positive with very little in the way to protect themselves,” Nessel said. “We talk about our first responders as being heroes to us and you hear that a lot from the other side of the aisle too, but we’re not treating them like heroes.” 

Sanders discussed the importance of the upcoming elections and the issues associated with in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. All state attorneys general said in unison the country would be best served to move to a vote-by-mail system. 

“It’s not only voter suppression, it’s doing everything you can to make sure that …  low-income people, working people, people of color don’t vote,” Sanders said. “They are very conscious about it and man, we have got to stand up and fight that big time.”

Nessel concluded the town hall by emphasizing the importance of listening to doctors and scientists during this crisis and establishing a precedent of trusting professionals in all facets of life. 

“We have to get back to a time in America where we trust scientists again and our decisions when we have a global pandemic, when we have any kind of decision,” Nessel said. “Whatever it is, we have to rely on those who understand these situations the best and these are people who have the scientific knowledge and not allow science to be spun for political purposes the way we have seen it with this administration.” 

Summer News Editor Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu.

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