The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s ‘essential,’ anyway? Roses, guns, manicures, marijuana — it all depends on who’s deciding.

(Victoria Fogg/The Washington Post)

In New Hampshire, florists, garden centers and plant nurseries are considered essential businesses. In many states, more than you might imagine, golf courses are open as an essential outdoor recreation activity.

Recreational marijuana dispensaries are deemed essential in some states where people are forbidden to eat in restaurants or imbibe in bars. Gun stores are essential in many states. Where they’re not, lawsuits have swiftly followed.

Liquor stores are essential businesses almost everywhere — almost because of Pennsylvania, where they’re not.

During the coronavirus pandemic, all states are not equal.

One state’s weed is another state’s posies.

We’re in the middle of an “essential” crisis. The definition of that word dictates how we will live for our unforeseeable future. Some decisions will surely clog the courts. Meanwhile, essential versus nonessential workers has become the new caste system.

There is some consensus these days on what we need, essentially, to live. We need food, though perhaps not as many carbs as new homebound bread obsessives are baking. We need access to health care and meds and 24-roll packs of toilet paper. Hardware stores are necessary to keep shelters in place. Laundromats are essential for people without laundries. Our pets’ well-being, even those of aging, indifferent, decidedly nocturnal felines? Essential. We need gas to anxiously drive to these places. In cities, we require bike-repair shops so we can safely pedal to them.

Then things get muddy.

Many decisions are left to governors, in consultation with state health officials, as well as mayors and county executives. What is considered an essential business or service can even vary from municipality to municipality within a state, since density poses greater risk.

Unsurprisingly, there is discord between some governors and mayors, particularly when they are members of opposing parties, sometimes when they are not.

A beauty of an intrastate battle raged in Arizona over salon services. Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, declared “personal hygiene services,” such as hair and nail salons, essential.

He did not clarify why. The very nature of “personal hygiene” requires proximity. Try snipping locks or lacquering nails at the recommended safe distance of six feet.

Arizona’s Democratic mayors lashed out at Ducey for being too lax and imposed more austere guidelines. He responded by barring them from enforcing stricter orders than the state. When he issued a state stay-at-home order Monday, personal hygiene services remained on the list of essential businesses.

“I don’t know what message it sends when manicures are essential,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego told a local radio station. “There are so many holes in this you can drive a freight train through it.”

On Friday, Ducey told the salons to close.

What counts as an essential business in 10 U.S. Cities

Times are tense. Politics are constant. Logic is often elusive. Battles are bound to occur in matters concerning religious freedom, the Second Amendment, alcohol, marijuana and now, it seems, hair and nails. (Not to mention abortion, which some states are deeming an unnecessary procedure.)

“States in our federal system are sovereign governments. They have sovereign powers, and these sovereign powers are profound,” says Arizona State law professor James Hodge, director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy. “One of the core mandates of that power is to protect the public’s health.”

Ordinarily, natural disasters like hurricanes, floods or wildfires strike a specific state or region. “But never before in modern history have all 50 states simultaneously declared an emergency,” Hodge says.

During the pandemic, regional distinctions fall by the wayside, with contiguous states often going their own way. Some states, such as Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota, have yet to issue stay-at-home orders or restrict businesses (at least as of press time). Asked why florists are considered essential in New Hampshire, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Sununu (R) cited funerals.

“In many ways, it is a virtue and a tribute to the way we make decisions about public safety on a local level,” says Robert Inman, a professor emeritus of finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Do you worry a lot about close contact in Montana the way you might worry about it in New York City? Implementation is going to vary community to community based on geography and how people live their lives.”

Essential has become an elastic concept — not just a state classification but a philosophical question. Is takeout essential? At the supermarket, where we put ourselves at risk for germs and contact anxiety, is that fifth box of penne essential, that second bag of Funyuns?

Is it essential to keep ordering more stuff, especially when the essential stuff, like thermometers, is back-ordered until June? Amazon warehouse workers in Michigan walked off the job Wednesday, requesting that the facility be closed. They protested filling nonessential orders and, in a video that went viral, sex toys in particular.

“Dildos are not essential items,” said employee Mario Crippen in the video. “Books for kids, yes, but dildos? No.”

Amazon told The Washington Post in a statement that “we’re not stopping or slowing down orders where we already have stock and where those orders do not prevent us from shipping priority items.” (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

At some organizations, nonessential employees have been laid off. At shuttered Disney theme parks, nonessential staffers learned Thursday they will be furloughed April 19. In other companies, “nonessential” means working from home in soft pants and socks, and may be preferable to “essential,” which requires reporting to offices.

But state orders are where the most confounding conflicts reside. Despite mounting coronavirus cases and criticism for failing to curtail spring-break revelry, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) did not issue a “safer at home” order and declare state beaches closed until last Wednesday. Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale closed their seashores back in mid-March.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) banned gatherings of more than 50, but she exempted places of worship, as have several other governors.

States can’t agree on size. Many prohibit groups of more than 10 residents, consistent with the Trump administration’s recommendation. Connecticut and Rhode Island limit groups to five. Penalties are in place in some states, like Oregon, for violating stay-at-home orders, including up to 30 days in jail. Then again, jails pose a greater risk of the virus spreading for violators and law enforcement.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) views gun stores as nonessential, leaving discretion up to county law enforcement. Gun rights activists filed a federal lawsuit. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) viewed gun stores as nonessential. The NRA filed suit there, too.

Orders are changing by the day, even hourly. “Some of the leeway makes sense, and some of it doesn’t at all,” says Jennifer Tolbert, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s director of state health reform, who is constantly updating state actions.

The situation remains fluid, even in alcohol-restricted Pennsylvania, where the state controls sales.

On March 17, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) closed the nearly 600 state liquor stores and ceased online orders. The previous day, the control board registered almost $30 million in sales, a six-year record. On Wednesday, due to pent-up, shelter-in-place, we-can’t-stay-sober-during-a global-pandemic demand, Wolf opened online sales.

But the website was “randomizing access,” which means it was a formidable challenge to place an order on Thursday. And on Friday. And, then again, on Saturday.

Correction: This story initially misspelled the name of Amazon employee Mario Crippen.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

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