Pizza delivery drivers, zookeepers and weather forecasters.
Those were among the less-obvious professions that Gov. Jay Inslee, in his Monday executive order mandating that Washingtonians seclude themselves as much as possible, identified as “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers” exempt from his directive that everyone who can must work from home starting Wednesday evening.
The top of the list of workers deemed indispensable “to fight this virus,” as Inslee said, is a no-brainer: Health care workers and workers in adjacent industries — everyone from medical equipment distributors to insurance adjusters and security guards at hospitals — were named essential to combat the growing pandemic.
The Washington state Department of Health confirmed Tuesday an additional 248 cases and 13 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The newly released numbers bring the total of confirmed cases in Washington to 2,469 and 123 fatalities.
Other sectors required to keep Washingtonians safe, healthy, sheltered and fed have also been exempted from the stay-at-home order. You can read the full list of essential businesses here.
With all that’s been designated essential, few businesses that haven’t already closed or mandated that employees work from home will be required to do so, said Jacob Vigdor, an economist at the University of Washington who has studied the Seattle area economy.
“If you’re looking for the sectors of the economy that we switched off as a result of this order, it’s some retail, some construction and some manufacturing,” he said.
But there’s plenty of gray area in the governor’s order, leaving some businesses — and employees — wondering whether they’re essential or not.
Construction has been halted on office buildings and sports arenas, while residential building is allowed to continue — but it’s not clear where that leaves mixed-use buildings. The governor’s order allowed farmers markets to go on, but in Seattle, they may still have trouble getting a permit. Real estate brokers can continue to sell homes, but industry groups have asked them to stop conducting in-person showings.
Nonessential businesses that continue to require employees to come to work can be held criminally liable, according to the governor’s order. But Penny Thomas, a spokesperson for the Department of Commerce, said it wasn’t clear as of Tuesday evening on how the mandate would be enforced.
Washington’s definition of “essential business” is modeled on lists developed by the federal government and by California.
Workers in most liquor stores are exempt, as are workers at cannabis retailers. The executive order specified that brewers and vintners were essential personnel, but distilleries weren’t specifically called out.
That didn’t surprise Ian MacNeil, the owner of Glass Distillery in Seattle.
“We are always the redheaded stepchild of the alcohol world,” he said.
Within a day, though, a lobbyist for the Washington Distillers Guild prompted the governor’s office to clarify that distilleries are, indeed, essential businesses, according to guild president Mhairi Voelsgen.
MacNeil would have been able to keep coming to work even without the exemption clarification, because his distillery — like dozens across the state — has started churning out much-needed hand sanitizer, producers of which are allowed to keep showing up on the job, according to Page 13 of the executive order.
Starting Wednesday, businesses can request to be added to the list of exemptions. The governor’s office ultimately decides which businesses and workers will be deemed essential, Thomas said.
Many businesses lobbied for carve-outs in advance of the order. Others said they hoped to do so in the days to come.
“If you asked our customers, they’d say we’re essential,” said Ambika Singh, the CEO of Armoire, an upscale clothing-rental service headquartered in Pioneer Square. “A lot of them rely on us for clean clothes.”
There’s no carve-out for such companies in the governor’s order. But there is one for laundromats. And, Singh said, Armoire essentially functions as a laundromat, cleaning the clothes that customers return before shipping them new items.
Singh said Tuesday she had just hours before the directive goes into effect to decide whether she needs to lay off her 22 warehouse workers, or whether she can keep operating.
But an “essential” designation may not always sit well with employees.
Three Nordstrom employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution, said they didn’t understand why the upscale clothing retailer’s fulfillment centers were still fully staffed in light of guidance to limit gatherings of more than 10 people. The governor’s order classifies warehouse workers who fulfill online retail orders as essential.
On March 17, Nordstrom closed its retail stores to the public for two weeks. But employees said Nordstrom has still asked a number of retail staff to show up for work to handle a major uptick in online orders.
“We’ve all been working five days a week to fill online orders,” said a Nordstrom employee at a Puget Sound retail location. “We’re still receiving trucks of new merchandise.” A Nordstrom representative did not respond to questions.
After midnight on March 25, “nonessential businesses in Washington State are prohibited from conducting all activities and operations except minimum basic operations,” the order reads.
Even after that date, construction workers will keep building homes, and warehouses will keep supplying products (even less-than-essential ones) to consumers’ doorsteps.
In his Monday order, Inslee explicitly named food-delivery workers essential personnel. Still, to clear up confusion, Dominos Pizza issued delivery drivers a letter to carry in their cars clarifying that the driver has been “designated as an employee of an essential service workforce.”
Deep within supply chains, factory workers at companies like Renton’s Trojan Lithograph, which makes packaging for grocery brands including Costco’s Kirkland Signature, are also exempt from the stay-at-home order.
While there’s a multitude of companies clamoring to be granted exemptions to allow some degree of normal business activity to continue, some businesses designated essential have decided that actually, they’re not.
Starbucks fully closed most of its cafes in the United States to protect the health of staff and customers last Friday. And Monday, before Inslee’s order, Boeing suspended activity at its Puget Sound factories, as well as maintenance activities on its grounded 737 MAX planes, after a Boeing worker died of a COVID-19 infection. Both companies could have stayed open under Inslee’s order.
In South Park, Resistencia Coffee will close for two weeks starting Wednesday, owner Coté Soerens said, even though the cafe — like Starbucks — could have kept operating under the exemption for carry-out restaurants.
“You have the spirit of the law and the letter of the law,” she said. “In the letter, we would be allowed to stay open. But the spirit of the law is to prevent people from passing the virus to each other.”
So, she said, she has no choice but to close.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct location of Resistencia Coffee.