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Coronavirus: Hobby Lobby stays open and employee dies at Lowe’s amid anger at chains claiming ‘essential business’ status

‘The government and 99.9 per cent of the business community, puts public health over profits,' Dallas County judge says

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Friday 03 April 2020 23:12 BST
Anthony Fauci says he doesn't understand why every US state is on coronavirus lockdown

A row over what constitutes an “essential business” during a coronavirus lockdown intensified further this week, with hardware and crafting stores coming under fire.

Restrictions on which businesses can open during stay-at-home orders have been put in place at the state level to protect both employees and shoppers.

The death of an employee from coronavirus at a big box Lowe’s hardware store highlighted that some retailers occupy a grey area. Craft supplier Hobby Lobby on the other hand appeared to decide to classify itself as an essential service.

The death of the Lowe’s employee in Michigan has led to calls by local officials for similar retailers to not be listed as essential services or have their operations restricted.

While they do sell important supplies such as cleaning products, maintenance and repair equipment, and essentials such as toilet paper, they also sell garden furniture, house paint, and grills.

Shawn Allen, Fire Marshal of Sterling Heights, Michigan, said: “They can’t be mixing paint and have people shopping for garden furniture. People are bored and they’re shopping.”

The Detroit Free Press reported that Mr Allen wants this stopped, or procedures modified, in the wake of the employee’s death. Since it occurred, the store has closed, been intensively cleaned, and now only allows curbside pickup and online orders.

Lowe’s says that it is increasing safety in its stores with signs and floor markings to enforce social distancing, enhanced cleaning, and plexiglass barriers at cash registers.

In a sector that does not straddle the divide between essential and non-essential services sits Hobby Lobby, which this week defied orders to close in a number of states.

The Colorado Attorney General, Phil Weiser, ordered Hobby Lobby to shutter its stores immediately, after it had specifically been classified as non-essential, ABC News reports.

“For the avoidance of doubt, and as you have been previously notified, Hobby Lobby is not a ‘critical business,’” the letter from the attorney general’s office states. “You are directed to immediately close all Hobby Lobby locations within the State of Colorado.”

In Ohio, Attorney General David Yost has also sent a cease and desist letter on Wednesday. He wondered why the company made the decision to reopen: “What’s changed? Neither the order, nor the seriousness of the health threat, for sure.”

By Thursday, Hobby Lobby was being challenged in other jurisdictions. CBS News reports that in Texas an official accused the chain of endangering public health.

“I just want to make it clear to Hobby Lobby, and anybody who is foolish enough to follow in their footsteps, that in Dallas County, the government and 99.9 per cent of the business community, puts public health over profits,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said in a news conference.

The Oklahoma-based company, which has 900 stores across the country, had initially complied with state-level orders to close, but decided to ask employees to return to work in a number of locations. Beyond Colorado, Ohio and Texas, stores are reportedly open in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

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