Are You Essential? It May Depend on How Much Pull You Have

RALEIGH – The old saying goes, ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know…,’ and that may be ringing true during one of the most abrupt economic halts many businesses in North Carolina have ever seen. That’s because while the governor’s various edicts over the last two weeks amount to an instantaneous halt to operations, pink slips, and ‘Plan B’s  for some business owners, other businesses are afforded an ‘essential’ designation that allows them to keep their doors open, make the necessary adjustments, and survive.

What distinguishes Joe’s Craft Shop (shutdown) from Bobby’s Hobby Store (deemed essential, allowed to remain open with caveats)? Actually, we don’t even have to use made up examples, because real life demonstrates just how arbitrary these job killing decisions are. The Raleigh News & Observer notes the confusion about who decides a business is essential or not:

“[…] A Hobby Lobby store in Raleigh was allowed to stay open, and a clerk who answered the phone said the store had argued that sales of craft and fabric supplies to students fill an educational need, which is considered essential. The store was admitting 10 customers at a time. But Joanne Fabrics in Cary was told it could not stay open or even fill online orders curbside, a clerk there said. […]”

So one business location is allowed to do what they can to survive, and another similar business is closed, prohibited from even filling online orders curbside in the exact same manner being used by other businesses to limp along while obeying social distance requirements.

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The Cooper administration has been asked repeatedly what goes into the ‘essential business’ designation, and they have indicated it is a fluid amalgam of ‘what other states do’ and guidance from the Department of Homeland Security. Yet the list seems to grow more and more inclusive as commercial interests apply and lobby for the ability to maintain operations.

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The mere fact that some businesses are were clearly marked non-essential initially are now suddenly being deemed essential and allowed remain open in accordance with social distancing guidelines, means that every business owner should be afforded that job-saving option, business-saving option.

Instead, someone, some bureaucrat or group of bureaucrats, is deciding which businesses live and die. Which people’s jobs go POOF and which get to hang on. The Department of Revenue is involved in maintaining the lists, so does a bigger footprint in taxes may carry more favored treatment than the just-getting-by small business owner?

There are many gaps in information, multiple sources of uncertainty, and a sore lack in clarity surrounding the epidemic. This confusing, arbitrary scheme, though, is just as much a life or death decision than those surrounding the public health debate. If business owners are subject to the semantic whims of bureaucrats focused on the ‘collective good,’ their decisions mean individuals and their families are going to become impoverished as a direct result of a perfunctory government mandate the efficacy of which can never even be determined.

Unemployment claims figures released last week showed the largest spike ever recorded during a two-week period in North Carolina, as just under 200,000 people filed for unemployment benefits. How many of those employees could have been kept on, but for the lack of a special ‘essential’ designation from the government?

Ask anyone of those out of the job, if that job was essential to them; ask them if that job was critical to paying their rent, or buying groceries, or caring for their children? Ask any small-business owner forced to shutter operations because of a confusing and inconsistent government mandate, how crucial that enterprise is to them and their family; how vital and needed those jobs are to their employees?

It is easy to see and understand that some businesses are afforded this designation, while others are excluded, for no clear reasons. The amount of pull you have, by virtue of the size of your business or the connections and awareness it enjoys, is just as much a factor as it always is when government exercises power of such things. The better question for North Carolinians to resolve, however, is this: Why are bureaucrats in the Cooper administration given the ability to decide if your livelihoods are essential or not?

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