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Covid surcharges are here to stay: Here's how much money they could cost you and how to avoid them

Dentists, salons, restaurants, and other businesses are charging more to cover expenses.

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As cities across America reopen, customers frequently encounter surprising new price increases for services at businesses affected by the pandemic.

That's because many service providers began tacking on fees to offset the costs of added Covid-19 safety measures, like personal protective gear for employees or sanitation supplies, for example.

Most reports of coronavirus surcharges have come from patients at dentist's offices, due to the increased cost of PPE for dentists, according to The Washington Post. Customers have also reported fees ranging from a $3 "sanitation charge" at hair salons and a 5% restaurant fee to cover rising food prices. In March last year, the Post reported, a senior living facility in Ohio sent a letter to residents announcing a $1,200 mandatory fee for extra cleaning and food because of the pandemic.

"Most businesses have been terribly impacted by the coronavirus," says Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director at Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. "In order to stay afloat, many will need to increase their prices. These increases may be directly identified as coronavirus surcharges, or they may just appear as an increase in the overall price of the service. The end result is the same — a change in the cost to the consumer."

Because these fees are sometimes hidden, and even sometimes against the law, state officials across the country have been warning residents. For example, the New York State Department of Financial Services instructed health insurers to coordinate refunds to patients who complained about providers improperly adding on fees to cover the costs of protective equipment.

"For many people, these Covid charges are still going to be a surprise — especially for the budget-conscious," says Couch-Friedman. And they aren't going away. Here are 3 ways you can factor Covid surcharges into your budget or avoid them completely.

1. Shop around

To avoid being surprised by an extra charge when you arrive at a business, Linda Sherry, Consumer Action's director of national priorities, recommends calling ahead to ask in advance if you can expect a price change related to Covid.

"When calling to make an appointment, ask: 'Has the cost of your services gone up because of Covid closures, new sanitary processes, etc.?'" Sherry explains. That way, you can do your research ahead of time and search for businesses that offer similar products or services that charge a smaller fee or don't have one at all.

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Not everyone is charging extra, points out Couch-Friedman. "Be aware that many businesses are trying to provide the same pre-pandemic level of service at the same rate and are just interested in reopening and returning to 'normal.'"

That's been the case for Milazzo & Mattey, a hair salon in Milltown, New Jersey. "We were obviously impacted terribly by the pandemic and when we had a limited reopening, we discussed adding some [Covid] surcharges," says co-owner Gloria Milazzo. "In the end, we just [wanted] to get our customers back into our chairs and try to get back to normal. We decided increasing our rates or adding surcharges would not facilitate that."

2. Negotiate

As a consumer, it's your right to know what you're paying for. Sometimes, that requires asking a few questions — you might find that if you push back, you won't have to pay.

"If there are new surcharges, the consumer needs to ask what the surcharge covers in order to determine if they can negotiate the fee," Couch-Friedman says. "For instance, if [the fee] covers the cost of a mask or hand sanitizer, the customer could offer to bring their own."

In general, businesses benefit from being forthcoming about any new charges, and springing fees on customers without explanation could put a dent in consumer trust. "An informed consumer is a more satisfied consumer and more likely to return," Couch-Friedman says. 

In order to stay afloat, many [businesses] will need to increase their prices.
Michelle Couch-Friedman
executive director at Elliott Advocacy

3. Plan and budget

Surcharges and higher fees have been the reality for a while, so you might want to factor them into your overall costs or find workarounds so you're not paying them as frequently. For example, if your salon tacks on a surcharge, consider stretching out the time between haircuts and DIYing some of your trims. If your restaurant fees add up, maybe put more money towards groceries and cooking at home.

Ultimately, it's up to you to figure out what costs you're willing to accept, says Sherry: "If consumers want to support a specific business, they can accept the added costs, whether they come in the form of an add-on charge or higher prices." 

Remember too that small businesses are fighting to keep their doors open and pay staff. A little extra money, if you can afford to part with it, could go a long way towards keeping your favorite shop open.

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