Apr 20, 2020 - Economy

The randomness of "essential" businesses

Illustration of an open sign that says , "Yes we're essential".

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Landscaping companies, gun stores, golf courses, live wrestling matches: Businesses considered "essential" in one state aren't designated the same way in others.

Why it matters: A patchwork of coronavirus-era policies is causing confusion — plus envy and resentment — across the country, with calls for clearer federal guidelines about what should and shouldn't remain open.

There's consensus about a handful of obvious essentials, like hospitals and grocery stores. But others are more controversial:

  • Hobby Lobby, the crafts chain that kept doors open because it sells "essential" supplies to make masks and other personal protective equipment, defied initial orders from a number of states to close.
  • Bath & Body Works, which specializes in fragranced toiletries, made the case that it sells soaps and hand sanitizers — and some of stores were reportedly given the go-ahead to reopen in Ohio after initially closing.
  • In Florida, World Wrestling Entertainment was deemed an essential business by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who argued that Americans were bored by reruns of televised sports, telling reporters: "People have been starved for content."

The backstory: The federal government released guidance on what industries could remain open, though it's left to states — and sometimes cities — to decide who is allowed to operate and who isn't.

  • Who's essential includes broad swaths of workers, from bankers and auto mechanics to teachers and veterinarians.
  • But in some cases, state's early guidelines were too vague. It's forced them to double back and tell grey-area businesses to shut. For instance: Ohio's new Dispute Resolution Commission clarified last week that pet groomers were not considered essential businesses.
  • “There remains a need for clear national guidance to resolve questions caused by a number of conflicting state and local orders,” the National Retail Federation, retail's chief lobbying group, wrote in a letter to the White House.

Between the lines: The inconsistencies have created opportunity for businesses, which are flexing lobbying muscle to convince governors to deem them essential.

  • While liquor stores and medical marijuana dispensaries are deemed essential — to prevent people with chemical dependencies from having medical emergencies, among other reasons — some eyebrows have been raised.
  • In Massachusetts, for instance, recreational pot stores aren't considered essential. The decision drew furor from its cannabis industry, which says the outlets would be allowed to operate under other state guidelines.
  • Gov. Charlie Baker feared those shops "would attract people from out of state and hinder efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus," WBUR reports.

What to watch: "Essential" isn't going away — indeed, its definition could prove even more contentious as states and local areas begin the process of opening back up.

  • The businesses considered most important by governors will return to work first, which means that states will have to add more guidelines and gradations.
  • “So we want to start to bring the economy back, move up one tranche on how you define essential. What’s the next level of essential businesses?" New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week.
Go deeper