Essential Businesses and Returning to Work

As lockdown measures continue to require wide scale closures, many businesses and communities are left wondering what constitutes an “essential” service, and how soon they will be able to return to the workforce if deemed “nonessential”. These designations vary from state to state, but are generally made with consideration to a service’s role in the core functions of the economy. The Department of Homeland Security provides the following framework: 

Though essential designations within these sectors vary between states and municipalities, there are commonalities that may be helpful to consider. Many states consider the following to be essential during the pandemic: 

  • Health care operations (hospitals, laboratory services, nursing homes, etc.)
  • Critical infrastructure (utilities, water, airports, etc.)
  • Essential manufacturing (food, medical, telecommunications, etc.)
  • Essential retail (grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, etc.)
  • Essential services (sanitation, mail, distribution, auto repair, etc.)
  • News media
  • Financial institutions (banks, insurance, etc.)
  • Human services (homeless shelters, food banks, etc.)
  • Essential construction (public infrastructure, necessary for health and safety, etc.)
  • Defense (military, etc.)
  • Operating services for essential businesses (sanitation, law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, logistics and technology support, etc.)
  • Some professional services (law, real estate, etc.) with extensive restrictions

 Nonessential services typically include:

  • Theaters and entertainment venues
  • Cosmetic salons and massage parlors
  • Fitness centers
  • Tattoo and piercing studios
  • Dining services in restaurants and bars (which may still operate for takeout and delivery)

The Illinois Department of Commerce provides this helpful guide to determining whether a business is “essential” or not during the pandemic. Key considerations include a business’s significance to people’s ability to work, public health, human services, government functions, and public infrastructure.

As essential businesses continue to operate in limited capacity, and nonessential businesses develop strategies for remote operations, DHS recommends key considerations for closures and continuity during the coronavirus pandemic. Government agencies and businesses may implement organization-specific measures, but must comply with OSHA safety requirements and consider CDC guidance on employee protections and strategies to limit the spread of COVID-19. When possible, employees should work remotely with a focus on core business activities. If essential work cannot be accomplished remotely, employers should consider measures to reduce the virus’ spread through social distancing at the workplace, sanitation, and providing personal protective equipment (PPE). Additionally, sick leave policies should be evaluated, with consideration that sick employees may be incentivized to work despite the risk if their sick leave is inadequate.

States will have different plans for the order of reopening businesses, once conditions are deemed safe enough to do so. Resuming construction and manufacturing has been cited by New York Gov. Cuomo as part of the first phase to reopen the state’s economy. Phase two will involve risk analyses for businesses, and key considerations will likely include:

  • Space (can businesses enforce physical separation for social distancing)
  • Proposed precautions (staggered work schedules, PPE provisions, sanitation procedures, sick leave policies, etc.)
  • Risk of drawing visitors or encouraging travel 

However, until there is widespread access to testing for COVID-19 and antibodies, many businesses will not be able to return to normal operations, especially high-contact businesses like theaters, cosmetic salons, and nonessential retail. Reopening decisions will rely on each state’s rate of infection, health care capacity, testing capacity, and progress in developing COVID-19 treatments, in addition to the ability of different businesses and industries to implement adequate safety procedures.


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