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What’s An Essential Business? It Depends On Where You Live And Who You Ask

An image of a pawnbroker in Reno, Nevada.
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Pawnbrokers, like this one in Reno, Nev., are allowed to continue to operate in Nevada. Shops must still remain closed, but loans can still be provided.

A few weeks ago, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak encouraged all nonessential businesses to close their doors. Then, a few days later, on March 20, he ordered them to do so.

“If your business is nonessential to providing sustenance and for the everyday safety, health and wellbeing of Nevadans, you must shut down,” Sisolak said.

But what’s an essential business? Beyond obvious ones such as hospitals and grocery stores, there’s no simple answer.

Take mining, which is considered essential under Sisolak’s order. Though when asked about it, Sisolak had a hard time explaining why.

“I do not claim to be an expert on mining,” he said. “We are consulting with the professionals, the experts as it comes to that, the same as we do with construction. And we’ll come back to you when I have more information.”

Greg Walker, the executive managing director for Nevada Gold Mines, said he knows the reason.

“Nevada only has really two drivers for its economy,” Walker said. “The first being gaming and tourism and the second being mining and industry.”

Walker said his company employs 7,000 people in Nevada and supports thousands of additional jobs indirectly. That’s essential, he said, especially when you look at rising unemployment.

“The product we produce may not be essential during this pandemic, but the fact that we’re one of the main engines still driving the economy and keeping [the] Nevada economy afloat is essential, and I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s viewed and that’s how we view it,” he said.

But what about other industries and businesses who believe they’re essential for the economy, too, but aren’t on the list? Who decides? The federal government offers some guidelines, but they’re not clear either.

“Yeah, the guidelines are wide open. That’s in some ways the headline here,” said Adie Tomer with the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy think tank.

Tomer recently co-wrote a report about how to protect essential workers during this pandemic. He said the Department of Homeland Security came up with its federal directions in mid-March, but those directions are vague.

“What they’re saying is, ‘These are the industries or the businesses that should stay open.’ But there’s a catch there, right? They’re not saying who needs to show up for work,” Tomer said.

Instead, those decisions are falling to individual employers, who have to pay attention to state and local directives as well. And those can be a moving target.

“One week you might be deemed essential and the governors can change their minds on a dime. And all of a sudden you’re closed,” Tomer said.

Where your business is located also makes a difference. In the Mountain West, the rules range widely. In Nevada, for example, cannabis dispensaries and pawnbrokers can stay open. In Montana, painters and movers are considered essential.

Tomer said this patchwork can make things harder for companies and employees who don’t know whether they’ll be able to keep working.

“We need to be nimble and reflect changes in different circumstances in each market,” he said. “But at the same time, what it also creates is a feeling of uncertainty. And that’s especially challenging when we’re effectively living in uncertain times already.”

That uncertainty is vexing many in the business community. Cory Bettinghouse is the owner of Cory’s Lawn Service in Reno.

“We’re living hour by hour and day by day and things could change at any moment,” Bettinghouse said.

Bettinghouse said he’s been relying more on guidance from business groups, in his case, the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

But that’s problematic because every state defines his industry differently. In Idaho, landscapers are deemed essential, while in the rest of the region it depends on whether landscaping is considered a service that maintains the “safety and sanitation” of homes or businesses.

“That’s one thing that’s been hard is just having an official place where all business owners can go to and be like, ‘This is the cut and dry answer,’ ” Bettinghouse said.

The stakes are high — even beyond coronavirus transmission. The penalties for violating these public health orders range from losing your business license to fines, or even jail time, depending on where you live.

As Capt. Jack Owen from Las Vegas’s Metropolitan police department said in a recent video, “It is Nevada law right now that all nonessential businesses must close, and we are enforcing the law.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Do you have questions about COVID-19? How has this crisis affected you? Our reporters would love to hear from you. You can submit your question or share your story here.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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