In the face of the global pandemic, most cities and states have ordered nonessential businesses to close. But exactly what that means has become a frequent source of confusion, and led to some fraught debates. While most people would agree grocery stores and pharmacies provide vital services, there’s significantly less consensus when it comes to pawnshops, gun dealers and marijuana dispensaries.
“What is essential?” one Pennsylvania gun store owner asked television station WHYY. “Is there a list out there somewhere? Is it essential keeping you and your family afloat, trying to make money?”
Naturally, few sectors of the economy welcome being told society will continue to function just fine without them. Lobbying groups ranging from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation to the Marijuana Policy Project have been pushing lawmakers to designate their industries as “essential.” Meanwhile, retailers like Barnes & Noble and craft store Michaels have insisted they’re providing a crucial service to people who are bored or stressed out at home.
“Now more than ever, it is important that we continue to safely provide what these Americans need to support their livelihood, mental wellness and community giving,” Wade Miquelon, the CEO of JoAnn Fabrics, wrote in a recent letter to customers.
Amid a patchwork of local regulations, what stays open during the pandemic can vary from state to state or even county to county. Gun stores qualify as essential businesses in Connecticut, Ohio and Illinois, for instance, but not in New York or New Jersey. So far, Pennsylvania is the only state to close liquor stores, though Gov. Tom Wolf (D) has indicated he may revisit that decision.
Some businesses make the cut for reasons that might not immediately be obvious. Pawnshops and payday lenders, for instance, are controversial but also designated as an essential service at a time when many people are experiencing financial hardship.
Public health officials have pushed to keep liquor stores open because alcoholics cut off from their supply could turn to other unsafe substances instead, or potentially wind up in the emergency room with withdrawal symptoms at a time when hospitals are already stretched thin. Advocates for marijuana dispensaries point out that cannabis is used to treat ailments such as seizures and post-traumatic stress disorder, and people who use it to medicate their anxiety may have a heightened need during the crisis.
Elected officials have largely been trying to figure out what counts as “essential” as they go along, and some have already had to revise their stances. As The Washington Post’s Derek Hawkins reported, Denver designated liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries as nonessential businesses on Monday, sparking a wave of panic buying. Lines of shoppers that wrapped around city blocks threatened to pose a public health hazard, and the decision was reversed within a matter of hours.
Similarly, Wolf labeled gun stores in Pennsylvania as nonessential last week, but allowed them to reopen on Tuesday at the urging of two state Supreme Court justices who dissented from a ruling allowing them to remain closed.
In other cases, state and local officials have clashed over what should stay open. Last week, pawnshops in Miami-Dade County, Fla., were told to close. On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) overruled that decision and also designated some jewelry stores that offer cash for gold as essential businesses.
But by far the most contentious debate has been over gun stores, which have seen a dramatic surge in business in recent weeks. On one hand, gun control advocates say that allowing people to purchase firearms at a time of heightened anxiety could also be outright dangerous. But dealers claim the Second Amendment gives them a constitutional right to stay open, and gun rights activists are challenging the closures ordered by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) in court.
Others argue that firearms simply don’t belong in the same category as sliced bread, paper towels and instant noodles — meaning they’re not strictly necessary for survival in the modern age.
“Since we don’t live in the Wild West, where people are dependent on guns for food, and we do have a well-functioning police department, it would be hard to articulate a basis for arguing that a gun shop would be an essential service,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo (D) told the Wall Street Journal.