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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Why the Massachusetts business shutdown is practically useless

Gov. Charlie Baker announced last Monday, March 23, that all non-essential businesses would be closed from the next day at noon through April 7along with a number of other measures, including a stay-at-home advisory and fines for gatherings of over ten people—in order to help stem the spread of COVID-19. Sounds like a stringent measure, right? Turns out, most businesses will be able to stay open, even with these requirements.

When you hear that all non-essential businesses are closing, you imagine plazas empty of cars, retail stores shutting down, basically the economy going on pause for a few weeks. This shutdown will not do that, due to an overly broad definition of “essential businesses.” I found this out for myself when I learned that my employer, Staples, will remain open during this shutdown as an “essential” business. Apparently, we are essential under several of the guidances. We sell cleaning supplies, even if we won’t have any in stock for the duration of the crisis. We help transition and supply workers moving to remote employment, even if we are sold out of many critical pieces of hardware, such as computer monitors. We support moving and storage services, as well as sell equipment for packing and shipping. We do all these things, and a number of others, that are apparently essential for the COVID-19 response, at least according to the governor (1).

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a business that would not fit one of these guidelines, outside of those already shut down by previous orders. One of the only businesses that I could think of that didn’t fit the criteria established was the hotel industry, and then I got a bit farther down the list. One tiny bullet point: hotel workers. Why on earth are hotel workers necessary to address the COVID-19 crisis? It’s not even justified, like many of the other bullet points. Basically any business could provide reasonable justification for staying open under these guidelines, even those involved in securities trading, under the “significant prejudice” clause of the professional services provision (1). This shutdown was essentially useless, except as messaging to companies that they would be putting their employees in danger by staying open.

While this may seem like splitting hairs, companies all over the country are taking advantage of over-broad provisions like these in order to maintain operations during the crisis and gain an advantage over their competitors, at the expense of their employees and the public good. For example, an upscale furniture manufacturer, Restoration Hardware, from California defied a similar order in that state, considering itself “essential infrastructure” and keeping their call centers open, requiring workers to come into work in cramped conditions where all would be speaking, just like the call center in South Korea that caused rapid spread of the disease in that country (2). It’s as if the company was rooting for the virus! Now, California is on lockdown (3).

Half-measures like this one aren’t going to cut it with this crisis. Businesses will use any excuse they can to stay open. Only aggressive actions, like preventing businesses that are not wholly necessary for the maintenance of society and combating the virus, along with a corresponding list of which businesses shall remain open, will help slow the spread and save thousands of lives. Most of the Commonwealth’s response to this virus has been strong, with much faster and more efficient testing in comparison to the rest of the country, efficient and effective medical services that have helped limit fatalities, a stay-at-home advisory, and a strict, legally enforceable mandate to ban gathering of over ten people. However, Gov. Baker’s faux-business shutdown really missed the mark. I only hope that this failure won’t cost us any lives.

  1. https://www.masslive.com/coronavirus/2020/03/coronavirus-response-what-is-an-essential-business-here-are-the-massachusetts-businesses-that-can-stay-open-during-covid-19-pandemic.html

  2. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/restoration-hardware-critical-infrastructure-coronavirus-california_n_5e76a177c5b63c3b6491b0e9

  3. https://nypost.com/2020/03/21/coronavirus-in-california-how-life-has-changed-during-the-lockdown/