WILMINGTON — When Governor Cooper ordered a stay-home order for residents of North Carolina, New Hanover County took a few extra steps to regulate businesses deemed essential during these times. One such rule was for stores that sell both essential and nonessential goods. Stores that do this, like Walmart or Target, would have to close off any nonessential portion of the store to customers.
But who decides what is essential?
The Covid-19 pandemic is unlike anything most people have ever seen. As such, governments, as well as residents, are doing the best they can with current plans while adjusting them as things move forward.
“The county-wide order says retail stores providing essential goods ‘shall close to the public any portion of its facility dedicated to non-essential goods that it is reasonably capable of closing’ – and the county and city legal teams have tried to reinforce that message when they are contacted by and talking with businesses. The goal is to prevent people from general perusing and shopping at stores that would put them in close contact with others that could lead to the spread of the virus. All retail stores can sell curbside and online, as a reminder,” New Hanover County Spokeswoman Jessica Loeper said.
Although there does not appear to be any sort of official stance on what exact items are considered nonessential, stores like Walmart have taken it upon themselves to limit access to parts of the stores in New Hanover County. Stores have also been working with the county’s legal department on a case-by-case basis to talk about specifics.
“Our legal departments have corresponded with a number of businesses answering specific questions, and many businesses have made their own determinations as to what should be roped/closed off. We do provide a list of what is essential that has been shared widely via our FAQs site that provides good context for stores in determining items that are essential,” Loeper said.
The county does specify that retail establishments that are not ‘essential for health, sustenance, shelter, mobility, & hygiene’ are considered nonessential.
If one were to take a look at the stores that were forced to close due to being nonessential, it could be extrapolated that any store that sells those items, as well as ‘essentials’ like food and medicines, should be limiting access to those items.
For example, Walmart has closed off its cosmetics department as well as its clothing departments to comply with the order.
Hardware stores and furniture
Take Lowe’s as an example.
The store is considered essential under the state’s orders but it also has patio furniture for sale as soon as customers enter the store. Last week the Wilmington Police Department actually cited a furniture store for continuing operations after the closure order was in effect.
This is where things get a little more complicated.
“Under the county-wide order, furniture stores are non-essential retail but they may offer online and phone sales, and provide curbside pickup or delivery to customers, but the indoor areas of their business must remain closed. If a furniture store also sells appliances, then appliances are considered essentials under the order, but parts of the store that do not contain appliances must be closed off or roped off to the public so that the public is only allowed to be in the area where the appliances are available,” Loeper said.
Through this reasoning, a store like Lowe’s or another hardware store should have furniture closed or roped off to the general public — but they don’t.
So what about garden centers? Well, since these items are considered essential for landscaping and construction, stores are not obligated to close these departments.
“…Hardware stores and construction companies are considered essential services under the Governor’s order so they are allowed to remain open to the public. Garden centers attached to these businesses (or standing alone), would also be considered essential services as they provide landscaping materials, which are also part of the construction industry, and landscaping is therefore also considered to be an essential business. But gift shops as part of stand-alone plant stores would be closed,” Loeper said.
Stores like Walmart have started reducing their capacity to help aid in social distancing.
“Starting Saturday, we will limit the number of customers who can be in a store at once. Stores will now allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet at a given time, roughly 20 percent of a store’s capacity,” a press release from Walmart reads.
In order to implement the restrictions, queues have been added and now only one of the two entrances will be for shoppers to enter.
“Once a store reaches its capacity, customers will be admitted inside on a “1-out-1-in” basis,” according to the release.
At Lowe’s, the garden center remains open, however, access to the garden center is only available through the outside entrance. An employee limits the number of people into the garden areas and a queue is formed outside of the fence.
According to Lowe’s, all stores are enacting “enhanced social distancing protocols by adding dedicated social distancing ambassadors responsible for monitoring customer flow in garden centers and front-end areas and to enforce customer limits to allow proper social distancing.”
Ultimately, the county’s orders are in place to hopefully slow the spread of the virus but as things change, as they do on a rapid basis, the county will continue to adapt.
“The county and city are working together daily to answer questions, provide clarification, and ensure consistency – because these are definitely unchartered waters for all of us,” Loeper said.