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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

Hundreds more businesses plead with Baker administration to be deemed essential

Pet groomers, hair salons, construction companies all lobbied the state to reopen this month

Walmart stores were granted essential-business status because they sell food.
Walmart stores were granted essential-business status because they sell food.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

The requests keep coming to join that exclusive organization: the Essential Services club.

Who’s in and who’s out? Governor Charlie Baker overhauled the first list of essential businesses on March 31, while extending the shutdown for everyone else until May 4. The goal is public health, flattening the curve during the pandemic. But for business owners cooling their heels, it can be quite frustrating.

Some lucky businesses — bike shops, landscapers, chiropractors among them — were able to get themselves included by knocking loudly enough. But others want in, too: About 700 businesses that were shut out the first time have used a state-run online portal to lobby for inclusion, and the administration has separately received hundreds of e-mails to that effect. They came from all over the state, from the Berkshires to Barnstable.

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The most vocal industry this month? Pet groomers probably win the prize, based on data released to the Globe by the Baker administration. But there are plenty of others: hair salons and barber shops, furniture sellers, swimming pool services, boatyards, florists, photographers, sign-makers.

A wedding shop on Cape Cod wants to allow anxious brides to pick up the dresses they ordered. An indoor cycling studio in Somerville wants to offer virtual classes. There was a maintainer of church organs, as well as someone who uses border collies to control wild geese. At least two golf courses took their shot, even though the administration has made it clear it wants to see only lawn maintenance on the greens, not line drives.

Many requests came from construction companies whose projects were halted suddenly on April 1, when Baker deemed most commercial construction work to be nonessential. (Housing, public-sector and energy infrastructure work could continue.) Many contractors argued that they’re working on projects for essential businesses.

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Among the projects caught in the crossfire: a new headquarters in Needham for International Data Corp. and its IDG media affiliate, the renovation of the California Pizza Kitchen in the Back Bay, and a new research lab for Selecta Biosciences in Watertown.

Nearly all the requests came from small businesses. However, at least four big retail chains pleaded their case this month: Michaels, Hobby Lobby, Talbots, and Nordstrom. (None of the four chains could be reached for comment.)

Of the four, only Talbots is headquartered in Massachusetts. The Hingham-based apparel chain responded on April 8 after it received a state order to close its Lakeville warehouse. Talbots said its stores are all closed and the distribution center is the only one it has in the United States to serve online customers. Shut down Lakeville, Talbots said, and you shut down the entire company.

The administration’s stance on e-commerce has become more restrictive this month, not less. Warehouse operations had been allowed, but the state issued new rules on April 7 to offer some clarity: Online operators whose brick and mortar operations were already closed and deemed nonessential — such as furniture shops and most apparel stores — wouldn’t be able to run warehouses, either.

The administration’s stated intent: to substantially limit the number of workplaces open during this state of emergency to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus. (Talbots was able to keep its Lakeville site open, by the way, but only for producing personal protective equipment for the COVID-19 fight.)

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Some of the small-business owners can make sympathetic arguments for why they should be in the Essential Services club.

Michelle Garcia, a dog groomer in Stoughton, said she’s hearing increasingly from clients whose dogs are getting uncomfortable with matted hair. Larry White, who runs the Once Upon A Child store in West Springfield, said he sells essential products for families: clothes for babies, for example, and educational products for kids. It’s not fair, he said, that big-chain rivals Walmart and Target can stay open and he can’t. (Those big-box stores sell food, as well, making them shoo-ins for the club.)

White said he laid off 24 workers; only the owners of non-essential retail shops can enter their workplaces. This vexes Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, who argues that Massachusetts is more restrictive than other New England states in this regard. Employees, too, should be allowed to go into locked stores and warehouses, and be allowed to ship goods to their customers, much like those working for Amazon and Walmart can.

Sure, the requests have slowed considerably, compared to the intense volume in March. That’s when thousands of businesses lobbied the administration, amid the start of the coronavirus shutdowns.

Baker is widely expected to extend the shutdown order beyond May 4. If that happens, joining the Essential Services club would become more important than ever for the businesses left out in the cold.


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