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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

Retailers score an important victory: Baker administration relaxes the rules

Employees can now be in stores to fill online and phone orders

Florists' business will be helped now that they can fill phone and online orders from their shops in time for Mother's Day.
Florists' business will be helped now that they can fill phone and online orders from their shops in time for Mother's Day.DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images

Merchants in Massachusetts finally have something to celebrate during this rough spring: They can bring some workers back into the shop.

No, the doors aren’t opening to the public yet. But guidance published Monday night by the Baker administration allows retail employees to return in limited numbers to help fill phone and online orders. The rules also make it clear that auto dealers can sell cars, though showrooms will remain closed.

This marks a big win for Jon Hurst and the group he leads, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. Hurst had been lobbying the administration for weeks. Hurst and a few of his members made the case last week during a virtual meeting with the advisory board that Governor Charlie Baker established to design protocols by May 18 for reopening the economy.

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Hurst said that all other US states had allowed remote order fulfillment in stores this spring. Not Massachusetts. Business owners here could go in and take orders, and many were doing so. But employees had to stay home. It’s been particularly vexing for Hurst, because several big chains, such as Walmart, CVS and Target — not to mention Amazon — continued to operate because they sell essential products (namely food and medicines).

Hurst argued that the administration shouldn’t wait until May 18 to make this call: Mother’s Day is coming up, and plenty of florists and other retailers could use the help.

A spokesman for the state’s housing and economic development office said the administration made adjustments, in part, to be consistent with neighboring states. The administration, he said, saw that the activity has been taking place safely in nearby states for some time now.

Some merchants were already flouting the rules here — out of ignorance or quiet disobedience. But many others held back, hoping relief would come from the state.

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While the retail industry has seen more unemployment claims than any other sector in Massachusetts during the past few weeks, these rules might not lead to a huge rebound. The new rules impose constraints, based on store size: up to three employees in shops under 10,000 square feet, five in shops up to 30,000 square feet, and seven in larger stores. (The rules also require temperature checks and other safety measures.)

Plus, many stores probably won’t need to be fully staffed until well after the doors open to customers — whenever that blessed day finally arrives.

Rich Vaughn, owner of Needham Music, said he has kept his three employees on the payroll while his store is shuttered. He’ll set up a rotation now, with a different person in the shop each day. That will make it easier to serve customers, particularly with instrument repairs.

Circle Furniture co-owner Harold Tubman wants to staff his six stores in Greater Boston with at least one person apiece. At Michelson’s Shoes in Needham and Lexington, co-owner Eric Michelson will now be able to focus on prep work needed to reopen the stores, instead of taking orders and hand-delivering shoes to customers’ doorsteps. And Marathon Sports owner Colin Peddie said he hopes to have two or three workers in place at each of his 11 stores in Massachusetts.

Many merchants are using this time to strengthen the bonds with their regular customers — often through technology. Circle Furniture offers advice on décor through video chats, for example, and Marathon Sports uses videoconferencing for gait analysis and shoe recommendations.

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Auto dealerships already had a bit more leeway. Car repair was deemed an essential service, so many dealerships have remained open, while keeping showrooms closed.

Robert O’Koniewski, executive vice president at the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association, said the new guidance should offer some clarity for the local authorities: Auto sales can take place as long as they’re conducted online or by phone. Vehicle transfers can happen at dealerships, by appointment only, or at a customer’s home. Many dealers had allowed solo test drives, but the new guidance explicitly forbids them for now. O’Koniewski said he is trying to persuade the administration to change that.

Speaking of lobbying, Hurst has more work to do on his end. Unlike in many other states, retail shops here are still not allowed to offer curbside pickups. That’s next on his agenda.

Then there’s the inevitable reopening to customers.

In Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo’s current plan is to let stores reopen this weekend, under strict new constraints; shops in New Hampshire would follow on Monday.

Meanwhile, Baker just extended his shutdown until May 18. Hurst remains hopeful the administration will allow stores to accept customers later that week, in time for the long Memorial Day weekend.

Approving remote fulfillment of retail purchases represents an important first victory. But the retail industry needs many more of them to fully recover.

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