When It Comes to Defining 'Essential' Businesses, N.H. Casts A Wide Net | New Hampshire Public Radio

When It Comes to Defining 'Essential' Businesses, N.H. Casts A Wide Net

Apr 3, 2020

After initially resisting the idea, last week Gov. Chris Sununu implemented a historic “stay-at-home” order aimed at curbing the threat of the coronavirus, which, as of April 2, has sickened 479 in New Hampshire, and been blamed for five deaths.

Sununu said it wasn’t a step that he took lightly, acknowledging the impact a partial shuttering of the state’s economy will have on the lives of residents for months, and possibly years, to come.

The “stay-at-home” executive order — his 17th since the pandemic led to an official state of emergency — outlined a series of exemptions for business and service providers deemed “essential” to support the “core mission” of the state.

(Related: What Does New Hampshire's Stay-At-Home Order Mean?)

New Hampshire's top economic official said the state looked to Massachusetts, at least in part, as a template for how to define what activities should remain “essential.” But New Hampshire’s definition of “essential” was in some cases looser than the guidelines that existed next door at the time, according to an analysis by NHPR. And now, Massachusetts has expanded its list to look more like New Hampshire’s.

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The question of whether a business is labeled “essential” or not in either state is far from an abstract exercise. With experts predicting a long-term economic downturn from the pandemic, inclusion on the “essential” list could shape the fortunes of an entire statewide industry — from breweries to bookstores to car dealerships — for months to come. At the same time, allowing certain industries to remain open means that individuals who work in those sectors can continue to be called to report to work at a time when officials are saying it’s safest to stay at home.

(Not seeing a chart here comparing New Hampshire's "essential" business list to Massachusetts, or having trouble reading the chart on your device? Click here to open it in a new window.)

Perhaps the biggest initial difference between the two states was in the manufacturing sector, where Massachusetts until April 1 only permitted companies who manufacture medical supplies, chemicals, food products and a limited range of other materials to stay open.

New Hampshire’s definition of manufacturers deemed essential has from its first issuance permitted technology and biotech firms, as well as firearms, steel and other producers to remain open. None of those sectors were included in Massachusetts’ original list of essential businesses. Massachusetts has updated its guidance in recent days to reflect a more expansive range of manufacturers — including those working in biotech, steel and firearms.

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“We really consider our manufacturing industry the bread and butter of our economy in a lot of ways,” New Hampshire Business and Economic Affairs Commissioner Taylor Caswell told NHPR regarding the decision. “And that I think that you have to be able to continue those operations is important for the companies operationally. Some of these companies are not things you just turn off and turn back on again.”

With 70,000 employees, the manufacturing sector accounts for roughly ten percent of the state’s workforce. By way of comparison, approximately 60,000 people work in hospitality and food service, according to New Hampshire Employment Security, two sectors of the economy that are operating on an extremely limited basis.

New Hampshire ’also broke from Massachusetts by exempting nurseries, florists, greenhouses, garden centers, and agriculture supply stores as essential businesses. While those industries were absent from Massachusetts' original list, they now appear on the updated version.

The inclusion of nurseries and other gardening businesses could be the result of input from the Department of Agriculture, which along with other state agencies, helped the governor refine the list, according to Caswell. 

“We've been working with a multi-agency team that includes representatives to basically every department in the state to go over portions of this list and to to make sure that we weren't missing anything from their perspective,” he told NHPR.

The state’s broader definition of essential also extends to breweries, wineries and distilleries, as well as landscapers, beekeepers and golf course maintenance workers, none of which appear on Massachusetts’ original guidelines.

Massachusetts’ updated guidance now permits landscapers to continue operating if they are providing “services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation” of facilities “required to support COVID-19 response.”

While New Hampshire’s classification of hotel workers as “essential” initially aligned with that of Massachusetts, that’s no longer the case.

The new guidance out of Massachusetts restricts hotel and lodging activity “only to the degree those lodgings are offered or provided to accommodate the COVID-19 Essential Workforce, other workers responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency, and vulnerable populations.” No similar restriction exists in New Hampshire at the moment.

Bicycle repair shops and dry cleaners — also left off of Massachusetts’ original “essential” list — were included from the beginning in New Hampshire. Both industries have since been granted permission to operate in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts’ move to update its list of essential businesses came after it was flooded with “thousands” of inquiries about its initial guidelines, according to the Boston Globe. Since New Hampshire’s Executive Order was released last Thursday, Sununu says companies here have also appealed to be classified as essential.

“I think we've had a lot of nonessential businesses use our website to request some sort of exemption,” said Sununu during a press conference.

That includes New Hampshire real estate agents, who successfully appealed to the administration for a waiver. While open houses aren’t permitted, “showings of homes or other properties may take place by appointment and with appropriate social distancing measures,” according to New Hampshire Realtors.

This change, too, was echoed in the newly revised guidance out of Massachusetts. There, officials are now permitting “residential and commercial real estate services, including settlement services,” with no specific prohibition on open houses.

Since issuing the original “essential” business list, Sununu made another significant change. On Friday, he announced that most retailers would be permitted to offer curbside pick-up and delivery, which means that while customers aren’t entering stores, a limited number of employees are still heading to work.

Sununu said he decided to loosen restrictions on retailers after talking with Senate President Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat, who told the governor that businesses in her district were asking for greater flexibility.

“Knowing that, you know, the weekend was coming up,” Sununu told reporters this week, “before they just shuttered and got rid of a lot of their employees, we wanted to provide that flexibility.”

On the state government’s website, there are also clarifications for eyewear stores, gutter installers, and painting contractors, all of which the state says are deemed essential. Pet groomers were also added to that list.

“We'll deal with issues on a case by case basis,” said Sununu on his approach to defining what is essential and what’s not.

(This post was updated April 2 with the latest COVID-19 statistics from the state.)