What Does ‘Essential’ Mean During a Global Pandemic?

Yesterday Maine Governor Janet Mills issued an Executive Order “mandating that all non-essential businesses and operations in Maine close their physical locations that are public facing.” Understanding what is meant by an “essential business” during a global pandemic is something about which I have been thinking a lot recently. I think it’s a topic that needs a broader, community-wide dialog, and I hope to at least partially frame that discussion here. As I’ve sated in my previous COVID-19 pieces, while I am a journalist, fisheries, not health, is my usual beat. Having said that, I frequently cover food and food system issues, so, to keep this somewhat in my wheelhouse, I’ll focus here on what we mean by “essential” through the lens of the food system. (Spoiler alert: I don’t have the answers, but I’ll share my personal approach at the end.)

A couple days ago, I reported on a local restaurant that elected to close their take-out operations despite doing a booming business–despite being deemed essential (as all restaurants, cafes, etc. that offer take-out service currently are). Based on my interview with the restaurant, I learned that, in part, the decision was about a commitment to the health and well-being of its staff. In part it was also about community health. What really struck me, however, was what one employee told me:

Even if we are doing it 100 percent safely, it does seem like being open diminishes the severity of the situation.

When it comes to food safety, US restaurants are focused primarily on bacterial problems. As such, the protocols and procedures in place are also focused on bacteria. Coronavirus is not a bacterium, and so it’s worth pointing out that the usual protocols and procedures in a restaurant are not aimed at stopping its transmission. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to kill coronavirus by wiping down surfaces with the appropriate cleaners. So, while there is a risk associated with the virus being transmitted through the act of preparing food for take-out, that’s not actually the risk that worries me the most.

Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot more about what’s happening socially as a result of restaurants, cafes, specialty markets, and the like remaining open even if they are adhering to the “letter of the law”–even if they are “allowed” to stay open under the Executive Order. I’m wondering about if the ability to order my favorite dish from my favorite restaurant “diminishes the severity of the situation,” because I see a lot of people that don’t appear to be taking the situation as seriously as a global pandemic might warrant.

Allowed vs. Being Socially Responsible

In 2014, Brian Beggarly and Molly Eddy took the reins at Boynton-McKay Food Co. in Camden, Maine. The small business is an institution in the local community (“Custom remedies for ‘what ails ya’ since 1893. Food since 1999”). Whether you stop in for an award-winning breakfast, a quick (locally roasted) coffee or house-made Kombucha, or some slow-roasted pork tacos, Boynton-McKay is as beloved a destination today as it’s ever been.

On the 16th of March, two days before the Governor’s Order closing restaurants and bars to dine-in service in Maine, Boynton-McKay announced to its customers that they were moving to take-out and delivery only. In making that choice, they cited their commitment to community health even as local bars were advertising St. Patricks Day parties for the following evening. “[W]e are all looking out for each other in this time of uncertainty,” they wrote on their Facebook page.

Yesterday, within moments of the Governor’s Order for all public facing, non-essential businesses in Maine to close their physical locations, Boynton-McKay again stepped up as a community leader and announced that they would be closing altogether. 

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The interesting thing about this decision, and the decision of several other restaurants and cafes in the area to close, is that Boynton-McKay is actually considered an essential businesses under the Governor’s Order. One customer accurately pointed this out to them on social media, saying “You are still allowed to do takeout and delivery.”

So why did they choose to close?

Boynton-McKay’s response was one of the most concise and thoughtful responses I’ve heard to the question that’s been nagging me about what an essential business is. As Boynton-McKay responded in self-defining as “non-essential”:

‘Allowed to do’ and being socially responsible are different right now.

“I am conflicted about the right path forward,” says Boynton-McKay’s Brian Beggarly. “But if staying home is the best way to prevent the spread of this, isn’t offering people a reason to leave the house in direct contradiction to that advice?” He adds that the real tragedy is that people have forgotten how to cook and thus feel like they can’t live without restaurants.

The (Temporary) New Normal

As I was thinking through all of this, I turned to my friend and local chef Max Miller, whose thoughts about food and the food industry are just about as on point as the extraordinary food he makes. While Max agrees that having restaurants open at any level at this time decreases our capacity to take this pandemic seriously, he also thinks there is something else going on here that we must address. Something about the very heart of community and the hospitality industry in general.

“It is part of the construct of hospitality in general to make people feel comfortable and at home,” Max says. “It’s the real mission, but also a deep personal gravitation, of any cook or server that loves this industry to make other humans feel like nothing is amiss, the world is grand, and they ought not to think of the woes of everyday life.”

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 4.20.15 PMMaine Street Markets, a small Rockland-based specialty market and cafe, echos Max’s thoughts on their Facebook page announcing that they are open, saying “By providing delivery service, offering curbside pickup, and being open for takeout, we are ready to help recreate normal.”

Of course the obvious response to Max and Maine Street Markets is that things are not normal, nor should we be treating them as if they are. Things are amiss, the world is not grand, and we probably should be thinking more about the woes of everyday life living through a global pandemic than figuring out where we are going to get our house-made Kombucha and slow-roasted pork tacos.

How long will this new normal last? Based on the existing data from other areas affected by COVID-19, it’s all but a certainty that the numbers of infected people (and people who die from the disease) will rise in the next few weeks. As a result, and as history shows us, we will feel even more of a need to minimize contact. After we flatten the curve somewhat, we can start thinking about how to get people their favorite meal safely, but right now we need to focus on basics like limiting the spread of the disease.

What Do the Data Tell Us to Do?

Those of you familiar with my work as a science writer know that I put a premium on the data. What do the data tell us about where we should be shopping and how we should be living our lives in the face of COVID-19?

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 4.36.22 PMThe alternative to take-out from local restaurants and shopping at local specialty shops is the large, chain grocery store. Most have physical retail spaces of more than 5,000 square feet, and they are therefore following the Governor’s recommendations for stores of that size including, but not limited to, allowing only 100 shoppers to shop at any one time, staggering their hours for shoppers of a certain age, marking six-foot measurements by the cashier stations, reminding customers to remain six feet apart while in store, staggering break times for employees, and frequently sanitizing high-touch areas like shopping carts. Unlike many small businesses, they have the ability to staff the stores over night in order to implement additional sanitation measures that then provide the safest environment for vulnerable individuals to shop during special shopping hours first thing on the morning.

Is safe to shop at these large grocery stores? The reality is that, given the procedures in place, those at the greatest risk are the grocery store employees, not you, especially if you follow the guidelines and take smart precautions.

Should you shop almost exclusively at these large grocery stores right now? Simple math indicates that, yes, you should. Our primary responsibility to ourselves and to our communities at this point in the pandemic is to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Looking at the data regarding this virus’ transmission efficiency, it’s clear that the best (and easiest) way to reduce that risk is to have fewer interactions (e.g., fewer trips to fewer places). Unlike a trip to a restaurant for take-out, a trip to the grocery store can provide food for a family for an entire week or more. Unlike a cafe take-out, a single trip to a grocery store can supply two weeks or more of non-food related necessities like toiletries and medicines. The grocery store allows us, as consumers, to reduce the risk to ourselves, our families and our communities by limiting our interactions IF we shop at the grocery store as if a global pandemic is the new normal. 

A Greater Good?

The elephant in the room for many reading this will be that shopping at a small locally owned business–be it a restaurant or specialty market–is also about supporting one’s own community. In a place like Rockland, Maine, where I live, that’s an important consideration. I would argue it’s an important consideration anywhere. Main Street Markets expresses it well:

“We know the outside world has been changing continuously, and caution is encouraged. But to find normalcy, not only now but down the line, we ask you shop local. Buy gift cards for your loved ones, have us deliver prepared foods and groceries to your home or food to a neighbor in need, pick up curbside on your way to work. Shop local now so you can continue shopping local later.”

If local businesses close, most will need to rely on external support. Their longterm survival can be augmented by purchasing gift cards, but in reality, the help they will need will be much larger. Can we trust that local and federal government will take care of small businesses that elect to close in the best interest of community health? If we answer “no” to that question, then we are essentially saying that the increased risk is justified when we shop at these businesses. It’s important to remember that the data show us the risk is not just to the individual choosing to shop–it is to our families and our communities. The choices you make in the face of COVID-19 are choices that affect everyone, and you won’t know what that effect is until it’s too late.

I said at the outset that I don’t have the answers. Personally, I’m on day 13 of not leaving our property, and during that time, nobody besides my wife and I have entered our house. We stocked our pantry, fridge and freezer almost two weeks ago before I penned my first COVID-19 piece. We are fortunate to have a wee farm that supplements our diet, and we are blessed to live in a community that both barters and generously shares in times of need. We will shop at our local Hannaford grocery store sometime in the coming week with the goal of getting everything we need for the next two (or more) weeks. Although we generally feel strongly about going out of our way to shop at small local businesses (in part because we are one), we feel good about our choice to rely almost exclusively on Hannaford during this time. In large part, that’s because we feel like it’s the best way to mitigate the risk to ourselves and our community, as Hannaford is set up to disinfect and sanitize and mandate physical distancing in a manner that many small businesses are not. But it’s also because a large business like Hannaford is in a position to immediately support our local community in myriad ways, including a recent pledge of $250,000 in donations to support local food banks.

Looking only at the data regarding the transmission of the coronavirus and the trajectory of COVID-19, it seems clear to me that we must be far more selective about what businesses we consider essential whether or not our government defines them as such.

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About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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