What’s an essential business? It varies from place to place
The coronavirus pandemic is defining for the globe what’s “essential” and what things we really can’t do without, even though we might not need them for survival.
Attempting to slow the spread of the virus, authorities in many places are determining what shops and services can remain open. They’re also restricting citizens from leaving their homes. Stay-at-home orders or guidance are affecting more than one-fifth of the world’s population.
This has left many contemplating an existential question: What, really, is essential?
Whether it is in Asia, Europe, Africa or the United States, there’s general agreement: Health care workers, law enforcement, utility workers, food production and communications are generally exempt from lockdowns.
But some lists of exempted activities reflect a national identity, or the efforts of lobbyists.
In some U.S. states, golf, guns and ganja have been ruled essential, raising eyebrows and — in the case of guns — a good deal of ire.
In many places, booze is also on the list of essentials. Britain at first kept liquor stores off its list of businesses allowed to remain open, but after reports of supermarkets running out of beer, wine and spirits, the government quickly added them.
“Recent events clearly demonstrate that the process of designating ‘essential services’ is as much about culture as any legal-political reality about what is necessary to keep society functioning,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor of history at Oregon State University.
Countries including India and U.S. states are listing the information technology sector as essential. The world’s dependency on the internet has become even more apparent as countless people confined to their homes communicate, stream movies and play games online to stave off cabin fever.
Several states where marijuana is legal, such as California and Washington, deemed pot shops and workers in the market’s supply chain essential. For some, the emphasis is on medicinal uses, not enabling cooped-up people to get stoned.
“Cannabis is a safe and effective treatment that millions of Americans rely on to maintain productive daily lives while suffering from diseases and ailments,” Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said in an email. “It is the very definition of essential that these individuals can still access their medicine at this time.”
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont added gun shops to his list of essential businesses, generating shock and dismay among families of gun violence victims. His spokesman Max Reiss said Lamont is trying not to overly disrupt commerce or interfere with legal rights.
Newtown Action Alliance, a group formed after a gunman killed 26 people in 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, urged Lamont to reconsider, noting a recent surge in gun and ammunition purchases. The group predicted an “increased number of deaths due to unintentional shootings, homicides and suicides.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a legal opinion Friday saying emergency orders in his state can’t restrict gun sales.
“If you have a break down in society, well then our first line to defend ourselves is ourselves, so I think having a weapon … is very important for your personal safety,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told a radio interviewer.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday quietly allowed gun shops to reopen, but only by appointment during limited hours if customers and employees comply with social distancing and other protective measures.
There is a lot of variation across the United States because a national stay-at-home order has not been issued, said Benjamin Clark, associate professor of planning, public policy and management at the University of Oregon.
“We end up with places making up the rules that are culturally or geographically specific,” Clark said. “This is why we see so much variation, and potential risk.”