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Baker administration gives retailers more leeway amid shutdown to fulfill online orders

Employees can join owners in brick-and-mortar stores, but not customers

Stores, such as these on Newbury Street in Boston, will be allowed to bring in a limited number of employees.
Stores, such as these on Newbury Street in Boston, will be allowed to bring in a limited number of employees.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Just in time for Mother’s Day, the Baker administration is reopening the retail industry — but to employees, not to walk-in customers.

On Monday night, state officials amended their guidance for “essential services” to allow store owners to bring workers into their locked shops to fulfill online and phone orders. Store owners had previously been allowed to enter their businesses — but not workers — under the state’s shutdown rules, put in place in March to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Retailers Association of Massachusetts has been lobbying heavily for the change to allow some employees to come to work, in part to take advantage of the demand for flowers and other gifts before Mother’s Day. The group made another push for this change last week, speaking to an advisory board that Governor Charlie Baker established to develop protocols by May 18 for reopening the state economy.

The new rules for remote fulfillment have some strict guidelines. All employees within these locked stores must maintain 6 feet of social distancing. A maximum of three employees are allowed in stores under 10,000 square feet, while five may be allowed in stores of up to 30,000 square feet, and seven employees will be allowed in bigger stores. Temperature checks will be required before each shift, and employees with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 should not report to work.

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Harold Tubman, co-owner of Circle Furniture, is among the merchants who plan to take advantage of the new flexibility. He said he will probably have at least one store manager in each of his six stores in Greater Boston now, taking orders. Circle has done some online ordering remotely since the shutdown began, mostly smaller items that can be shipped easily, and some workers have been advising customers via Zoom chats. But the new rules, he said, will make it much easier to fulfill customer requests.

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“I think most people are very anxious to have something going on,” Tubman said. “I don’t know how longer we can sustain with no one can coming in. … It’s important to have someone in the store answering the phone by location, monitoring things a little.”


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