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COVID-19

What’s an “essential” business, and who decides?

Kristin Schwab Apr 27, 2020
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Golf courses in some parts of Florida are considered "essential." Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images
COVID-19

What’s an “essential” business, and who decides?

Kristin Schwab Apr 27, 2020
Golf courses in some parts of Florida are considered "essential." Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Bob McNichols, general manager of Longbow Golf Club in Mesa, Arizona, is happy his golf course is considered essential. It means he still has a job. But he’s not so thrilled about the word “essential.” “I regret in a way that the category itself was named ‘essential businesses.’ And I understand that hospitals and other facilities are essential in a way that golf is not,” he said.

He gets it: of course people can live without golf. But it doesn’t mean they should. And many have been coming out to play at his course. “You play against yourself and you play against the course and you might be playing with other people, but there’s no need for physical contact.”

What does it take to be an “essential” business during the pandemic? In mid-March, the federal Department of Homeland Security outlined essential businesses including agriculture, construction and energy. But ultimately it’s up to individual states and cities to decide.

“Muddled and confused is how I would describe the reaction from small businesses,” said Elizabeth Milito at the National Federation of Independent Business, who has spent much of the last month on the phone with business owners going over state mandates.

Some mandates are written in clumsy legal jargon that’s hard to understand. And the reasoning behind a lot of the designations just doesn’t make sense. “Why outdoor construction, but not outdoor landscaping?” she said. “That has added to the confusion and frustration.”

And the rules are only going to get more confusing as states restart their economies because it won’t be a mass reopening, but a trickle. It will again be up to local governments to pick and choose who gets to open — and who can rehire workers. “There’s a way to do it thoughtfully and safely. But we do need to plan to start reopening,” Milito said.

For those that can reopen, it won’t be business as usual. So what will it look like?

“It’s a lot of nos. And it just feels awkward to tell our customers no,” said Jessie Jacobson, owner of Tonkadale Greenhouse in Minnetonka, Minnesota. “It’s the opposite of what customer service is.” No bathrooms, no shopping in groups, no more of that free buttery popcorn the customers love.

Because she could stay open, Jacobson was able to keep her staff on payroll. And her business is down just a bit. But the real test is coming — 40% of the store’s annual sales happen in May. “All of our spring product is timed to be ready for Mother’s Day,” she said. “Kind of what I like to call the ‘big show.’ “

Of course, many industries have their own versions of the big show in spring and summer. Whether they’ll be able to take the stage? That’s up to their local government.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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