The coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re essential or not


April 14, 2020 10:12AM

One of the upsides to living in this effective quarantine is that I am planting a garden for the first time in four years. I have longed for fresh veggies grown with my own hands and picked from my own backyard, but life just got in the way year after year. Since I now leave home on average about once every 10 days, I have a bit more time on my hands this spring. Thank God I live in Tennessee and not Michigan.

Because if I lived in Michigan, I’d be out of luck thanks to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has deemed the garden centers at retailers “non-essential” and thereby closed. I can’t think of many things more essential than food. 

Michigan’s ridiculous rules on what is and is not essential shows just how preposterous this distinction is in the first place. What is essential to one person may not be to another; issuing a blanket order banning the purchase of some products and not others could never properly take this into account. And when it comes to jobs, I’ve never met a working person who said their paycheck or being able to afford to feed their family wasn’t essential. 

While Tennessee has also based some of its business closures on this arbitrary essential versus non-essential definition, at least Gov. Bill Lee has provided wider latitude for businesses to remain open if they can comply with public health guidelines. And after announcing a plan for a phased in re-opening of the economy on Monday, Gov. Lee should base these actions on public health factors, rather than follow the lead of leaders like Michigan’s by picking and choosing who gets to open and who doesn’t. 

After all, the virus doesn’t care if you’re on an essential shopping run or just out perusing the non-essential aisles. You are far more likely to get the virus purchasing essential toilet paper in a crowded grocery store than you are a non-essential puzzle in an empty bookstore. On the flipside, if a business maintains proper social distancing and complies with public health guidelines, it can sell anything it wishes without putting its workers or customers at risk.  

As Gov. Lee and his economic recovery group explore ways to ease the current restrictions placed on businesses and commerce, they should first scrap any notion of trying to toe the essential/non-essential line. Instead, they should focus on whether businesses can protect the health of their workers and the public. That is a far more sensible approach, is less prone to abuse, and is actually tied to how viruses spread in the first place.