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Coronavirus In Ohio: Confusion Persists Over What's An 'Essential Business'

Paradise Garage co-owner Emily Monnig. The bike shop has shifted to a curbside model amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Nick Evans
Paradise Garage co-owner Emily Monnig. The bike shop has shifted to a curbside model amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

A slow but steady stream of people pass through Beechwold Hardware in Clintonville. On the floor in front of the counter, the owners have put down yellow tape to maintain social distancing between customers and workers.

Co-owner Malcolm Moore says they’ll be watching foot traffic, and probably reducing their hours somewhat.

“I think several of the salaried employees are probably going to stay off the grounds, so to speak, and stay home," Moore says. "And we’ll have some part timers in here, and it’s great to have the part timers on the floor so they can get their hourly wage amount fulfilled for the week.”

Ohio has entered a new chapter in the fight against COVID-19 after the governor’s stay-at-home order took effect – or at least it has on paper. The declaration from Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton, which says "non-essential business and operations must cease," is a testament to how hard it is to draw a line between what’s needed and what’s not.

The list of essentials businesses includes 25 different categories running the gamut from gas stations and grocery stores, to pawnshops and payday lenders. Some operations, like restaurant supply stores, will stay open because they fit in the supply chain of other essential businesses.

During Tuesday’s coronavirus briefing, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted defended the order’s definition of essential, and urged businesses to comply.

“I want to emphasize: Read the plain language of the order. If you don’t qualify, then consider yourself closed,” Husted said. “But if you do qualify, be prepared to explain it to your employees, to law enforcement or a health department official if you’re asked, because that will come.”

Malcolm Moore is co-owner of Beechwold Hardware, which is considered an essential business under the state's stay at home order.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Malcolm Moore is co-owner of Beechwold Hardware, which is considered an essential business under the state's stay at home order.

Mike Albert, a realtor, was at Beechwold Hardware getting a piece of glass cut for a home he’s selling.

“Paragraph 14 or whatever that is,” Albert explained. “We’re essential—to close real estate, and to keep that going.”

In the order, realtors fall under the heading of professional services, along with attorneys and accountants. Albert argues that showing a home doesn’t create big crowds.

In Marion, a Whirlpool facility will stay open under a provision for manufacturers, including those making home appliances. Workers there are having their temperature taken in the morning, but they still worry whether surfaces are being adequately cleaned.

In a statement, the company defended its cleaning and hygiene protocols, and said customers are “depending on our products more than ever to clean, cook and provide proper food and medicine storage in their homes, and we are working to ensure we can deliver.”

Enforcing closures of non-essential businesses will fall to local authorities and health departments, although Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein acknowledges the order carries a lot of exceptions.

Klein says businesses, like all Ohio residents, should exercise common sense when deciding whether to stay open and what kind of safety precautions they should take.

“Whether that is a family staying at home, and choosing not to go out and meet with other families at a house party, [that] makes some common sense because we don’t want to spread COVID-19,” Klein says. “That same common sense applies to whether you should operate your business and whether you deem yourself essential.”

In the Short North, the Paradise Garage bike shop has closed its sales floor, moving instead to a curbside model.

Emily Monnig, one of the shop’s owners, explains they remain open under the provision for transportation businesses like auto or boat repairs. Paradise now runs most of its business over text message. Customers can schedule service or make purchases online and then pull up to a small tent out back to pick up or drop off.

“We disinfect things when they come in, and then we disinfect before they go back out again,” Monnig explains. “We’re asking staff to wear gloves at all times, and we’re having handwashing times throughout the day and then they re-glove again.”

Monnig says they’ve given every employee a separate dedicated workspace, and they’re taking their temperatures when they come in to work. It’s been a big shift, she says, but her staff is managing the changes well.

One customer, Ryan Coyle, came by to pick up a bike he left for service.

“My wife and I bike in the summer usually anyway,” he said. “So we were planning, like if this all wasn’t happening, [we] would still be getting it fixed, but it was definitely a kick in the butt to go get it done faster.”

It appears Coyle is in good company. With gyms closed, a bike rides is one of handful of options to safely get some excercise outside the home.

Monnig says this is the time of year when they'd ordinarily get a lot of service requests, and so far they haven’t seen a noticeable dip in business.

Ohio's coronavirus call center is open to answer questions from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The hotline number is 1-833-4-ASK-ODH or 1-833-427-5634. More information is available at coronavirus.ohio.gov.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.