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Hurricane Sandy: Food safety, closed stores, anti-price gouging

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Hurricane Sandy is bearing down hard on the East Coast. Atlantic City, N.J., casinos have been evacuated. Jersey Shore is abandoned. Some Manhattan streets are starting to flood.

The mega-storm has already smashed through construction sites, shut down stores and Wall Street and left even jaded residents slightly panicky.

Vendors of essential items such as food, water, gas and batteries are prohibited from price-gouging during the tempest, warned New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. And as public transportation shuts down, the law against emergency-time inflation also applies to taxi drivers, he said.

PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy

Violators “will ultimately see a reduction in their profits, [be] faced with penalties, fines and directives to set up reimbursement funds,” Schneiderman said in a statement.

On Monday morning, stores were shutting down all over the Northeast. Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook were swarmed with photos of cleared shelves. Several stores, such as one Whole Foods in Cambridge, Mass., featured “Frankenstorm Essentials” displays near stacks of cheese and other snacks.

Home Depot offered extended hours over the weekend at its Northeast stores but by Monday had closed several locations in New Jersey and New York.

Grocery store chain A&P put up an alert on its website urging customers to shop while they still could.

“During the hurricane, we will do our best to keep our stores open for business,” the company said on its website. “However, some stores may close for reasons beyond our control, such as evacuation orders or power outages.”

On Monday morning, the ShopRite chain also closed a slew of stores. Earlier, the company said it received 'accelerated and additional deliveries of important items … including water, ice, batteries, milk and bread."

Along with a list of shuttered shops on its website, ShopRite noted that a complete count “may not be possible because…of deteriorating conditions.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture stressed that food safety is critical as grocery stores close up shop and potential power outages and flooding threaten the quality of stored food.

"We encourage residents in the projected path of the storm to include an appliance thermometer, coolers, and dry ice on their Hurricane Sandy preparation checklists,” said Elisabeth Hagen, USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety. “As a last resort for food safety, when in doubt, throw it out."

Consumers are also urged to keep food on shelves away from contaminated water in case of flooding. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if the door is closed, while a full freezer will keep its temperature for about 48 hours, compared with 24 hours when half-filled.

PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy approaches

Meanwhile, retailers were trying to control their losses from the dearth of traffic. The Equinox gym chain said all of its fitness centers were still open.

“All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe!,” tweeted the Gap clothing company. “We’ll be doing lots of http://Gap.com shopping today. How about you?”

Some customers used the squall-related shutdowns to try out new stores.

“My regular neighborhood bagel, David’s Bagel: closed,” tweeted @handelsaurus. “Tompkins Sq Bagel: open! 1st time here #sandy #breakfast rescue #eastvillage.”

Calculating the ultimate economic impact of the gale “is far more complex than merely adding up insurance payouts and uninsured losses,” according to Peter Morici, a professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy

Such disasters can boost the construction sector even as they cause commercial activity to stall for days. Sandy-related losses could reach $45 billion, according to Morici. But rebuilding after the storm could spark at least $20 billion in direct private spending, he said.

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