Defining what’s an ‘essential business’ is up for debate around Georgia

Even in a crisis, virtually every part of American commerce is apparently essential.

That much is clear even as local government leaders throughout Georgia struggle over which business operations should close down and remain open. The debates are playing out while the federal government and Gov. Brian Kemp cede much of the decision making — and public health officials urge people to stay home to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The distinctions are potentially crucial for business owners and workers who can’t telework from home and want to continue to try to make a living even as many customers have become scarce. With shelter-in-place rules being enacted in spots around the state, members of the public who venture out also want to know where they are allowed to go.

Federal, state and local leaders have differing thoughts. But so far they also seem to agree on a lot. Including the importance of groceries, gas stations, convenience stores, blood donation centers, and most health care providers.

Nail salons? Nope.

Bars? Not even close.

Food delivery? Yup.

Law firms? Sustained.

Stores? Depends on the kind. Hardware, yes. Clothing, maybe not (unless in some cases at a thrift store run to support a nonprofit).

Dry cleaners? Veterinarians? Electricians? Exterminators? Banks? Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

A number of metro Atlanta’s biggest companies face hard times as business or stock prices plummet, but government leaders generally appear to be saying what they do remains essential, from air travel (Delta Air Lines) and utilities (Southern Company) to delivery and shipping (UPS) and beverages (Coca-Cola Company, which in addition to soft drinks markets bottled water and other beverages).

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security last week created a list of what it considers critical infrastructure workers — those, it said, who “have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.” It cautioned that the list is advisory and shouldn’t be considered a federal standard.

Duluth-based farm equipment maker AGCO nonetheless put out a press release highlighting the federal agency’s inclusion of agriculture infrastructure. And a Coke spokesman referred to the listing of beverage and food manufacturers when questioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Still, around Georgia, there are variations about what is and isn’t essential and what limits are in place.

Gov. Kemp on Monday ordered all bars and nightclubs closed, but as of Tuesday afternoon he hadn’t called for sheltering in place statewide for most people. He did order that all gatherings of 10 or more people can only take place if businesses and organizations can always maintain at least six feet between people.

Hundreds of local governments are left to decide whether to create their own patchwork of limitations.

As mayor of Athens-Clarke County, Kelly Girtz helped usher in early shelter-in-place restrictions. While 80% of what’s on the essential business list was pretty straightforward, others were up for debate. California’s Bay area that Athens used as a partial model said yes to residential builders, Girtz recalled. Athens added commercial builders as well.

Some things were clearly not essential at the moment, he said. “Right now is not the time to look for a new lampshade.”

Professional services such as accountants and lawyers made the list, the mayor said, because they help support the operations of other essential businesses, such as grocers.

“I think everybody understands that there aren’t perfect answers in a crisis time, and if we can come up with pretty good answers, we are going to do that.”

He stressed that even businesses and workplaces that are permitted to stay open must keep at least six feet between people, whether customers or employees. That’s not always immediately possible, though, Girtz acknowledged, including in the case of customers and grocery store cashiers or some workers on poultry processing lines.

In Athens, the essential businesses list — put in place last week and updated since then — includes gun stores, food cultivation shops, dentists, insurance companies, lawn maintenance services, pawn shops, plumbers, real estate companies and sporting goods stores. Among those specifically deemed non-essential are in-store pet groomers, furniture stores, most clothing stores, screen-printers, tobacco and vape shops, and call centers for non-essential services.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms created a different list late Monday when she issued a shelter-in-place order, which includes a number of permitted exceptions for people to leave their homes. Some of the exceptions include patronizing or working at a variety of businesses deemed essential, including those that supply products needed to work from home, professional services, banks and related financial institutions, hardware stores, lodging businesses, conference centers and providers necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation and essential operation of residences.

To add more uniformity around the state, the Georgia Municipal Association drafted a model declaration this week for leaders of Georgia’s 538 cities to consider. In addition to barring in-restaurant dining, businesses that don’t make its cut as essential include: gyms, fitness centers, pools, social clubs, amusement facilities, bowling alleys, pool halls, theaters, massage parlors, nail salons and “any facility used for an activity that involves prolonged physical proximity of individuals” or is “used for entertainment, social, grooming or general health and wellbeing purposes, must close and remain closed for the duration of this emergency.”

Others have gone a different way. DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond called for no more than 10 people to be allowed in each bowling alley, fitness center, gym, personal grooming establishment or indoor funeral in the county. The main distinction he made between those on a long list of “essential businesses” and those that didn’t make the cut was that essential ones will be allowed to be open earlier than 6 a.m. and later than 9 p.m. Among those allowed to stay open longer: bike shops, dry cleaners, auto repair shops, cemeteries and essential manufacturing and construction to maintain public health, safety and welfare.

On Tuesday evening, Cobb County Chairman Mike Boyce ordered somewhat similar limitations, with only “essential businesses” allowed to keep longer hours. His long list of such businesses included defense industry companies, bonding businesses, wrecker services, warehouse operations and, in certain circumstances, service providers such as those who clean gutters and windows, pressure wash or cut trees.

Boyce also banned dine-in services in restaurants and bars and said businesses that remain open must take steps to maintain at least six feet between individuals. 

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