Which retail businesses are ‘essential’ during the coronavirus outbreak?

Photo: Getty Images/choja
Mar 23, 2020
Tom Ryan

The National Retail Federation (NRF) urged President Donald Trump last Thursday to come up with national guidance for state and local governments on what constitutes an “essential” retail business amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The request followed a Reuters report on Wednesday that detailed the confusion retailers are facing determining who can stay open, with many different states having different rules.

“Unfortunately, there remains a need for clear national guidance to resolve questions caused by a number of conflicting state and local orders that are triggering consumer, worker and business confusion, leading to cascading negative impacts on communities across the country,” NRF president and CEO Matt Shay wrote in a letter to Mr. Trump.

The organization listed a number of retailers it believes should be excluded from mandated closures now in place in some locales, including pet stores, distribution centers, farm stores with livestock feed, hardware stores, gas stations and highway rest areas for truck drivers. The Reuters report said authorities weren’t certain whether electronic stores, bookstores and hotels should be considered essential.

In California, a wide range of food sellers (from grocery stores, convenience stores to take-out restaurants), gas stations, pharmacies, banks and laundromats were deemed “essential services.” Businesses mandated to close included dine-in restaurants, bars and nightclubs, entertainment venues, gyms and fitness studios, public events and gatherings, and convention centers.

That leaves a lot of gray area, and the NRF said it’s a mistake that the final decision rests with the retailers themselves.

In San Francisco, cannabis dispensaries have been deemed essential after initially being ordered to close. Car dealerships have also successfully lobbied to stay open across California by arguing about the importance of cars for travel and delivery.

New York on Friday became the latest state to deem that liquor stores were an “essential” retailer. Yet last Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board closed all state-owned Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores as the virus began spreading across the state.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board said in a statement, “In these uncertain and unprecedented times, the public health crisis must take priority over the sale of wine and spirits, as the health and safety of our employees and communities is paramount.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What factors should guide whether a retail business is “essential” during a coronavirus pandemic? Should retailers help guide such decisions? Should the decisions be made at a national level or local level?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Trying to stay open misses the point, demand is essentially gone for the next several weeks."
"As others have said, this must be a local decision based on the severity of the outbreak and the characteristics of the location, among other factors."
"Like it or not, this is going to be determined at the state and local levels. As to what defines “essential,” that’s a tougher question."

Join the Discussion!

17 Comments on "Which retail businesses are ‘essential’ during the coronavirus outbreak?"

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Dick Seesel

If the Federal government is unwilling to exercise control over the production of needed medical supplies and equipment, it’s not likely to issue a mandate about what constitutes an “essential” retailer. Like it or not, this is going to be determined at the state and local levels.

As to what defines “essential,” that’s a tougher question. Clearly, pharmacies, discounters (dealing with everything from paper goods to pet supplies), hardware stores and grocers qualify. But cannabis dispensaries and car dealerships? (Repairs yes, sales no.) It’s clear that industry lobbyists are flexing their muscles on a state-by-state basis.

Steve Montgomery

The only caveat in terms of cannabis dispensaries being essential is that they are the only source for patients who use it for medical use.

Georganne Bender
Last week we were talking about GameStop staying open after declaring itself an essential retailer. All GameStop stores closed on Sunday due to consumer outrage. Who is essential and who is not became a hot topic with our clients in the creative industries yesterday. JoAnn Stores declared itself essential by saying it provides items for small business and consumers stuck at home. If that’s the case then so are independent craft/yarn/fabric stores, yet they have all elected to be safe and close their physical locations. Crafting has been proven to be healthy for us both physically and mentally, that being said now is not the time to encourage customers to gather in stores as JoAnn is doing today by opening its classrooms to anyone wanting to “safely” make face masks, covers, gowns and other essential items to be donated to hospitals. That’s admirable but it’s also dangerous. Independent craft and quilt retailers across the U.S. are also providing free kits that consumers pick up curbside and create in their own homes. The government needs to… Read more »
Bethany Allee

Encouraging folks to attend in-person classes right now is irresponsible. On the crafting front, I’m impressed by Michaels’ agility in going to a curbside model and setting up online learning – coupled with some killer discounts for customers. JoAnn’s message is a good one, but the execution is completely inappropriate for current times and concerns.

Georganne Bender

JoAnn’s also has online learning and curbside. Michaels stores are also open. Hours are limited and customers are encouraged to practice social distancing.

Richard Hernandez

Hi Georganne,
I am glad to see that GameStop finally closed their stores. That was something they were not going to win. So far what I have seen is that the states are making the decisions of what is essential and what is not and where it makes sense, the businesses have moved to a curb service model. Additionally, city and counties and are adding their executive orders on what should be open and what is not essential. My state (Texas) has not yet ordered a shelter in place directive, but cities and counties have started with Dallas having a shelter in place directive in place tonight at midnight. There are so many counties here that still have no positive cases – I think it would be difficult (at least right now) to make that call at a state level.

Georganne Bender

I agree! In Illinois we are under a stay-at-home order. Our governor talks about essential retailers in his daily updates but has yet to be more specific about what that means. I think governors will begin to make these distinctions soon. At least I hope they do.

Bob Amster

Let’s infuse a bit of humor into this timely discussion: Liquor and candy stores. OK, throw in gas stations, take-out restaurants, and grocery stores.

Neil Saunders

As stay at home orders are currently being mandated by state governments, it is really up to state governments to provide guidance. This is not ideal for retailers as it will lead to a patchwork of arrangements across the country, but that is a consequence of a federal system of government.

However, guidance does need to be given by someone to avoid silly situations such as GameStop claiming they are essential. To my mind, essential is something that is vital to life. That means food stores (including mass merchants that sell food like Target and Walmart) and drug stores for certain. The scope can perhaps be broadened to include home improvement stores as people may need to do repairs and maintenance, and possibly electrical stores that are seeing elevated demand for work products as people transition to working from home.

Craft shops, gaming shops, and others are nice things to have. But at the end of the day we can live without them!

Bob Phibbs

It’s a confusing time for everyone. Trying to stay open misses the point, demand is essentially gone for the next several weeks. Pushing the point you are essential and in the same category as food and medical care seem quite off the mark.

Ralph Jacobson

The key is to look at connected businesses to determine the essential nature of them. For instance, should car parts stores and mechanics’ shops stay open? Well, driving has not yet been outlawed, so people will still need to fix their cars.

Even more important is the need for a crisis plan. I see no evidence of a step-by-step U.S. Government plan to handle this crisis. After more than 12,000 deaths and more than 60 million cases of H1N1 Swine Flu in 2009-2010 in the U.S., alone, we didn’t think there was a need for a detailed plan of action for the next outbreak?! And we didn’t do ANY of the mitigation during that crisis that we’re doing now. After we’re past this mess, every aspect of our lives (economic, educational, healthcare, etc.) needs to be planned so we never have questions of how to deal with this again.

Michael Terpkosh

To this point, it is up to the states. I don’t see the feds stepping in on this unless some states continue to drag their feet on reducing social interaction. Essential retail is food, medicine and pets. Beyond this stores should close or have shipping and pick-up options. My local vet won’t let you in the door. However, they will come out to your car and take your pet inside for care. My vet also allows you to order online or by phone and pick up outside the front door. Creativity across retail will help us get through this together.

Peter Charness

As was noted (somewhere) on the news today, if we could completely isolate the entire population for all of two to three weeks we could 100 percent stop this outbreak. We can’t do that, but anything that can be closed should be. If everyone who can stay isolated does, it will shorten the duration of this pandemic.

Dan Frechtling

Perhaps we can define essential businesses by defining what they are not.

  1. They are not recreational or entertainment locations. This includes gyms, theaters and gaming. In my hometown, this also includes ski resorts. Not only are these non-essential for survival, but they can be substituted at home through streaming and other exercise choices.
  2. They are not hubs or gathering places. This includes hospitality retail, such as hotels and bars, unless operating as take-out. This stretches the definition of essential, but is critical in these days where the size of groups and the proximity of individuals determines the spread of the virus.
  3. In cities under shelter-in-place rules, they may be open areas too. This includes parks, playgrounds, ball fields, dog parks and other open areas. I saw park staff trying to cordon off a 60-acre park over the weekend and wished them good luck.

As others have said, this must be a local decision based on the severity of the outbreak and the characteristics of the location, among other factors.

Phil Rubin
1 year 22 days ago

Beyond the question of being essential, when is a retailer such as GameStop’s decision to stay open dangerous? There is also a big difference between in-store shopping (essential for grocery, drug and c-stores) and curbside-pickup or delivery, which might be the appropriate vehicle (no pun intended) for non-essential stores to allow them to remain in business and further employ delivery people and shipping companies.

At the risk of sounding political (feel free to infer 🙂 ), when the Federal government fails to exhibit the proper leadership or guidance, we have to allow local government to play its role. While that’s not exactly a level landscape and is unfortunate given some states’ failure to properly respond (Florida), local and state officials that are elected to lead and govern should be allowed to do just that.

Cynthia Holcomb

Grocery stores and pharmacies are a requirement to maintain health. After a check of online grocery delivery options, including Costco, many basic items are out of stock, leaving consumers with no choice but to physically visit a grocery store. Online stocking vs. in-store stocking must be a massive digital dance for retailers.

Should the decisions be made at a national level or a local level? This is a curious question given the continued mixed messages from all levels of local, state and federal governments. It seems legislators are still infusing politics and job security into the guts it takes to level with the American people — as evidenced by the discussion of this question.

Craig Sundstrom

“Essential” is very much dependent on how long this lasts. If it were only a few days, maybe even groceries wouldn’t be, but that obviously isn’t the case at present. Longer term — two, three months — the need would change radically. What if your fridge goes out? Cue appliance stores; if your job requires short hair? Cue barbers….

As for national guidance, I don’t oppose it, but I’m not sure it’s really necessary either … I would think it’s not high on the priorities list.

"Trying to stay open misses the point, demand is essentially gone for the next several weeks."
"As others have said, this must be a local decision based on the severity of the outbreak and the characteristics of the location, among other factors."
"Like it or not, this is going to be determined at the state and local levels. As to what defines “essential,” that’s a tougher question."

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