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Essential confusion

With a potential “second wave” of COVID-19 coming in the winter, can lawmakers find a better standard for business closures than shifting and subjective definitions of “nonessential”?

Essential confusion

A Dallas store is boarded up amid COVID-19 concerns. (LM Otero/AP)

Come springtime, Logos Bookstore in Dallas is typically hopping. 

For 45 years, Logos has sold Christian books out of its storefront in a cute, candy-colored shopping center in the heart of Dallas, just across from Southern Methodist University. Customers filter in from the sidewalk to browse, while regulars chat up longtime owners Rick and Susan Lewis.

“For us, Easter is almost as big as Christmas,” Susan Lewis said. “And usually we’re packed, and we do a lot of business. So it was very, very different this year.”

For over a month, Lewis has tried to make do with phone orders alone. Some customers have intentionally overpaid to help them out. Still, she estimates the bookshop is making 10 to 25 percent of its usual spring sales. The decrease in traffic was brought on first by an emergency order from Dallas County on March 23, then reinforced statewide on April 2. Only “essential businesses” were to remain open, from the obvious—grocery stores, auto repair shops—to the more surprising, like gun retailers and liquor stores. Sadly for loyal Logos patrons, bookstores weren’t on the list. 

Of course, Logos isn’t an outlier. Entire world economies are in upheaval as attempts to contain COVID-19 cases forced business closures. Little by little, government leaders are reopening economies, rolling out recovery plans in phases. 

But experts, such as CDC director Robert Redfield, have warned that a “second wave” of infections this winter may be worse than the first. Even as shops throw open the shutters with hopefulness this spring, round two of business closures may be mere months away. Round one left the economy reeling, and lawmakers now have an opportunity to assess what worked when shutting down businesses—but also what could improve if the world faces a similar crisis in the future. 

State and local governments’ emergency orders have varied, and so has the yardstick that determines which businesses are permitted to keep their doors open. Scott Pearson, a business professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, said small businesses will be particularly affected by the upheaval, since many don’t have the easy access to capital that larger businesses have.

“There will be a lot of cases where those businesses won’t make it,” he said. “And such a large portion of our employment in this country is from small businesses. So if those small businesses go under, that’s a lot of employment that goes under as well.”

Lewis wondered if Logos could have kept its doors open, observing social distancing, disinfecting regularly, and allowing only a few customers in at a time. What makes a business “essential,” anyway? 

“I guess it makes another question, essential to whom? Our customers say we are essential to them, to their wellbeing, to their spiritual journeys, to their state of mind, to their happiness, and many other things,” Lewis said.

The Lewises think they’ll rebound once stay-at-home orders are lifted. But others may not have that experience. Julie Norine is one-half of the Dallas-based photography business Matt & Julie Weddings. She and her husband—the other half—bought their first home right before the Texas mandate forced the cancellation or postponement of all of their booked photography sessions during what would have been a busy season, with weddings, senior portraits, and outdoor family photo sessions. 

They’re unlikely to make up for lost income later in the year, since every shoot rescheduled means that future date is unavailable to other would-be customers.

“I would say 50 percent of the yearly income [lost] would be a conservative number,” Norine said.

Norine is particularly frustrated, since photography can be done from a safe distance of 6-plus feet. Pearson said lawmakers should consider broadening their standards for which businesses should stay open. 

“‘Essential and nonessential’ is not the only criteria. There’s ‘safe and unsafe,’” Pearson noted. “Different jobs have different characteristics in terms of social distancing. And if we believe that a 6-foot distance is sufficient, then certainly there are jobs that one could do without violating that, even if they happen to fall into somebody else’s perception of what’s nonessential.”

From county to county, state to state, rules have been applied differently, adding to the murkiness. At one point, Dallas County required high-touch businesses like salons to close. But until Texas expanded that order to cover the entire state, Dallas residents were able to drive to neighboring counties for haircuts.

“This is really the challenge that we face when we try to dub someone ‘essential or nonessential,’ because there are many things I'm convinced are probably nonessential,” Pearson said. “And perhaps for 99 percent of the population it isn’t essential. But I also don't know about the 1 percent for which that might be essential.”

Craft stores, too, were initially forced to shutter in Dallas, as County Judge Clay Jenkins sent police to serve a cease-and-desist order at a North Dallas Hobby Lobby. At an April news conference, Jenkins said the action was necessary to enforce his emergency order and protect the public. 

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

A closed Hobby Lobby store in Lakewood, Colo. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

“It’s a slap in the face to the businesses that are following this order that a few outliers are putting the community in danger,” Jenkins said. 

But locals had been patronizing those retailers for homeschool materials and crafts to keep suddenly homebound children occupied, and for supplies to make facemasks. Public outcry prompted Jenkins to call back the craft store order weeks later.

No doubt, lawmakers have faced tough challenges. Pearson noted that while we can all agree that food is a necessity, in some jurisdictions, authorities deemed truck stops nonessential, so truckloads of food couldn’t make it to their destinations. 

“It's not just the first level of essential, it’s the second and third level of essential. What kinds of things do you need at the third level to support the second level to support the first level? At some point, it really is impossible to know,” he said.

For some businesses, like gyms, social distancing and adequate disinfection would be all but impossible. But what about the hard-hit restaurant industry? Julien Eelsen owns a Whisk Crepes Cafe, a French cafe in an artsy Dallas neighborhood. He’s been able to make up about 75 percent of lost dine-in revenue through the sale of “provisions boxes” containing meat, produce, even gloves, plus French wine.

Overall, he understands why shelter-at-home measures are necessary, and he’s happy to comply. But he admitted to feeling like there was a bit of a double standard when Dallas County implemented restrictions on businesses—especially early on when he saw crowded aisles at grocery stores. “I would look and think, ‘If that is happening here, why can’t I have diners in my restaurant?’” Eelsen said.

Another snag: Local governments have struggled to enforce the rules across the board. That concerns Lauren Bell, who runs residential remodeling company The Chatham Collective in North Texas with her husband, Kris. The Bells played it safe and complied with local regulations that permitted only critical infrastructure or existing or emergency projects to continue, and only then if workers exhibited good health.

That means the Bells said “no” to some opportunities and delayed others. They’re counting on Small Business Administration loans, like the Payroll Protection Program, to get their business through these leaner months. 

But even on her own street, Bell is seeing new, elective remodeling projects gearing up. She understands that as people shelter at home, they want to improve the space where they’re spending so much time. But, she said responsible contractors should turn those jobs down.

“I think if the rules apply to me, they also apply to you,” Bell said.

At least one type of store has been allowed to keep its doors open: big box hardware stores, like Home Depot and Lowe’s. As Bell noted, existing construction and infrastructure projects are sanctioned, and contractors need supplies. Plus, homeowners need quick recourse if their refrigerator dies or a pipe bursts.

But one Lowe’s employee in Fort Worth told me most customers aren’t there for those kinds of essentials. In fact, appliance sales are moving slower than usual. For the first couple weeks of the economic shut down, district manager Matt Inman saw customers panic-buying things like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, gloves, even N95 facemasks the store stocks for painters.   

“Then after week three, people were getting stir-crazy, and it was anything that could keep them sane at home,” he said. His biggest selling item when I spoke to him was paint.

On pretty days, he said the garden center is packed. But Inman said Lowe’s by keeping its doors open helps support people’s mental health, and for the most part, customers are picking up supplies they can use while cooped up at home. 

“Whatever I can sell you to keep you home and not leave and not go stir-crazy, to me, that’s an essential,” he said.

Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

A man shops at a Florida Home Depot. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

But in certain parts of the United States, like Michigan and Vermont, governments required major retailers like Costco, Target, and Walmart—places that sell essentials, like groceries, alongside novelties—to stop selling nonessential items. Proponents of such measures say it cuts down on shoppers’ in-store time, limiting their exposure. And it levels the playing field, since other businesses that sell candles, books, clothing, and the like have had to close. But Inman said that kind of request creates confusion for store operators and frustration for customers. 

Weighing individuals’ rights versus public health is a balance, but Pearson says most decision-makers are only looking at “one side of the coin.” 

He said the slogan “people over profits” is a false comparison and points to reports that the economic downturn may itself result in lost lives. “We don’t think about that as an economic impact,” he said, “but it’s real.”

It’s not as simple as humans versus the economy. Texas, for one,  plans to open back up in phases, starting with retail, restaurants, museums, movie theaters, and libraries on May 1. These businesses may choose to reopen, so long as they observe social distancing and only operate at 25 percent capacity. By mid-month, Gov. Greg Abbott expects to expand that to 50 percent capacity and add salons to the list of authorized businesses. 

But back at Whisk Creperie, Eelsen said he’ll keep his dining room closed for at least the next few weeks despite the green light from the governor. Safety is his biggest concern, but finances do come into play. 

“For your fixed costs, like rent and insurance, you can’t just do those at 25 percent. For any major restaurant, it really isn’t profitable unless you’re at 100 percent capacity,” he said. 

Eelsen plans to watch and see what happens as other businesses reopen, then make plans accordingly. The Lewises, on the other hand, feel a mix of “cautious optimism and excitement” as they prepare to greet customers in-store, Susan said. 

She’s planning to implement a strict cleaning protocol, and she and Rick are considering requiring customers to wear masks. Lewis said social distancing will be tricky—“no hugs!”—but she’s up for the challenge. 

“The hardest part for all of us, whether we’re talking about business owners or government officials, is knowing what wisdom looks like in this scenario,” said Lewis. “We’ve never faced anything like this.” 

Katie Gaultney

Katie Gaultney

Katie is a senior correspondent for WORLD Radio. She is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and Southern Methodist University. She previously worked in public relations, event planning, and speechwriting. Katie resides with her family in Dallas. Follow her on Twitter @gaultney.


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  • Narissara
    Posted: Thu, 04/30/2020 11:09 am

    World has reported extensively on how China uses technology to monitor its citizens' every move but very little attention has been given to efforts to implement the same kind of technology in the US.  Debates about what are essential versus non-essential businesses might soon become a moot point.  New York's Governor Cuomo has been calling for contact tracing through our cell phones almost from the beginning of this pandemic and seems to be partnering with governors from other states to implement it.  And who can say whether Congress included funding for it in the recent relief packages?  

    It won't end when this pandemic does.  The main talking point is that individuals only have the right to participate in certain areas of society if they are "healthy."  But this kind of techonology can also be used to determine who a person associates with, what neighborhoods they frequent, whether they've attended peaceful protests against certain government actions, or even the sacred cow of the abortion industry -- all indicators of so-called social credit scores in China.  It's a violation of our constitutional rights but nobody seems overly concerned about it.  They'd rather be safe.  

  • Narissara
    Posted: Thu, 04/30/2020 06:47 pm

    The first order of business should probably be determining jurisdiction.  Should the definition of essential be determined at the local, state or federal level?  Government from a Bible perspective should be from the bottom up, not top down -- family first, then community, state, and federal government last.  That is presumably the purpose of the 9th and 10th Amendments.  

    If definitions and guidelines are to be consistent from state to state, it needs to come from the federal government and not subject to the dictates of the Governors Association, which as a body has made itself an additional, unofficial layer of government sandwiched between the federal and state levels, and completely unaccountable to the people.  If it is to be determined at the state level, then let the several states govern themselves  in accordance with the Constitution of the United States and their respective state constitutions.  The governors seeking each others' counsel is one thing; but governors of one state pointing fingers and telling neighboring states how to govern themselves is another.  

  • AlanE
    Posted: Mon, 05/18/2020 08:41 pm

    Making a decision as to what is essential and what is non-essential seems to be clearly above the government's pay grade. Which is to say it's above anyone's pay grade. Meanwhile, people have been out and about circulating all spring long. What little control the government had over the situation was lost when the goalposts were moved from flattening the curve to waiting for a cure. Most people are smart enough to realize there won't be anything left if they wait that long. Now the government is making all sorts of silly plans for reconvening the schools under strict guidelines while teenagers are out and about enjoying an extended holiday with friends.