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Thousands of businesses flood Baker administration with inquiries over ‘essential’ list

Retailers, in particular, want freedom to offer curbside pickup and deliveries

Jesse E. Menachem of the Massachusetts Golf Association argued unsuccessfully that golf courses should be allowed to open because they provided needed outdoor exercise with social distancing.
Jesse E. Menachem of the Massachusetts Golf Association argued unsuccessfully that golf courses should be allowed to open because they provided needed outdoor exercise with social distancing.Joanne Rathe

Nearly every boss in the state must have expected Governor Charlie Baker to extend his shutdown of nonessential businesses.

But that won’t make it any easier, now that it is here: Baker on Tuesday pushed the closure of nonessential workplaces out to May 4, from the earlier date of April 7 that he established last week, to slow the spread of COVID-19 cases.

Baker and his top aides have already heard plenty from the business community about the closures. The administration received more than 7,000 inquiries about the list of businesses and workers that are deemed essential, including a steady stream of requests to be included. Of those inquiries, roughly 4,000 came in through an online portal specifically set up for this feedback. (Mike Kennealy, the state’s economic development secretary, said the Massachusetts list largely follows federal guidelines.)

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Everyone, it seems, wanted to be on it: from bookstores to bike shops, pot sellers to pet groomers.

Baker did yield on some requests, widening the list. Examples include: chiropractors, bicycle maintenance, landscapers, real estate agents. Also, gun distributors are allowed to be open, but not gun shops. Recreational marijuana? Still deemed nonessential. (Medicinal marijuana has been considered essential from the start.)

In a few instances, the governor became more restrictive. Most notable among those: hotels, motels and short-term rentals can now only be made available to medical workers and other people fighting the spread of COVID-19, or for people displaced by the pandemic. Hotels had a blanket exemption under the earlier ruling.

Paul Sacco, president of the Massachusetts Lodging Association, said more than half of the state’s 1,000 or so lodging establishments had already closed temporarily because their business slowed so significantly. At least 80 that remained open, he said, have agreed to host hospital workers.

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Golf course owners and managers were among those that tried and failed to be deemed essential, though they did get some clarity on a related front — that landscapers can continue to maintain the courses during the shutdown.

Jesse Menachem, chief executive of the Massachusetts Golf Association, said the golf season is about to begin, and clubs could lose major revenue if they don’t open soon. He said courses could be reopened safely and should be deemed essential because they provide a healthy outlet for exercise. He pointed to other states, such as Rhode Island and Connecticut, that allow golf to continue, with safety protocols.

Bike shops have been a gray area. The original list did not specify bicycle maintenance, but many shops continued under the exemption for employees supporting “transportation functions.” Now, bike maintenance and repair is spelled out explicitly as essential, but not necessarily bike sales.

Clint Paige, co-owner of Wheelworks in Belmont, submitted two requests to the state for bike shops such as his to be exempted. For now, he offers curbside pickup for retail items that consumers order online, as well as curbside pickups and drop-offs for repair. Sales of kids’ bikes have actually skyrocketed since the schools closed; many parents seem willing to buy without trying them out, while employees can offer advice over the phone. But it’s still slow: If he’s lucky, he said, the shop will do about 35 percent of its normal April sales and repair volume during the shutdown.

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Other retailers haven’t been even that fortunate. In many cases, shop owners are handling online and phone orders but soldiering on without their staff, because they can enter their businesses while employees cannot. Wendy Morton Hudson, who owns two bookstores on Nantucket, had sought a state exemption to allow employees to come into the stores to fulfill orders, and for shoppers to pick up their books outside on the curb. No success so far. Instead, her two store managers are still on the payroll working from home, while she packs and ships books in person.

Eric Michelson, who owns Michelson’s Shoes in Lexington and Needham, laid off his staff of 10 workers. (He still pays their health insurance). Michelson is still fulfilling orders, though, along with his brother and co-owner Jerry. He gets five or 10 a day. They even drop packages off at customers’ homes, if they live within five miles of the stores. He understands why Baker extended the shutdown, but would appreciate the freedom to allow curbside pickup.

Lobbying on their behalf is Jon Hurst, head of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. Knowing an extension of the shutdown was imminent, Hurst e-mailed top officials in the Baker administration Monday, urging flexibility for his members. In particular, he wants the state to allow shop employees to handle deliveries, shipping, phone sales and curbside pickup, like what is allowed in New Hampshire and Connecticut. Warehouse workers for big e-commerce players such as Amazon are allowed here. Why not those who work for the mom and pops?

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He is still waiting for an answer. He worries about the long-term impacts as the shutdown drags on. Many merchants haven’t been deemed essential to public health. But to our downtowns and Main Streets? Let’s hope we don’t learn the answer to that question the hard way.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.