Furniture store owner challenges selective enforcement of COVID-19 order

Published: Apr. 2, 2020 at 6:37 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The rules seem to change by the day as we grapple with the Coronavirus pandemic. Residents and businesses, trying to comply with the latest restrictions, have a lot to keep up with, especially because the orders from their city or county may be different than orders issued by the state.

The manager of Rose Brother’s Furniture, the first (and to our knowledge only) Wilmington business cited for not complying with a county order to slow the spread of COVID-19, said he’s frustrated over the selective enforcement of the new order regarding furniture stores.

“It’s very confusing. That’s why I don’t understand why they come in the store and give us a citation for not taping off the [furniture] areas, which are not required from these other retail stores that we’ve gone and checked, but for some reason we’re the only ones that have received the citation,” General Manager Bill Shugart told WECT, noting that big box stores in town have furniture on display that is not taped off, and other small furniture stores like his remain open.

According to the City of Wilmington, furniture stores are not considered essential businesses and must close to the public except for delivery or curbside pickup. However, there are limited exceptions:

“If a furniture store also sells appliances, then appliances are considered essentials under the County’s order. However, all 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,” the City of Wilmington posted on it’s COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions page.

An anonymous tip prompted Wilmington Police to visit Rose Brothers on College Road Tuesday and warn store managers to rearrange their showroom. Shugart said he simply hadn’t had time to do that before the officer was back in his showroom on Wednesday.

“They came in the door and wrote me a citation, telling me that I was selling furniture. At the time, and I didn’t have anything taped off or roped off, where they could only shop for [appliances]. They asked me to put all of those products at the front door. Which I thought was ridiculous, but we have it done today,” Shugart said.

Shugart said he’s sitting on about million dollars in inventory he’s already purchased and needs to sell. He said he understands the danger of COVID-19, so they were already taking precautions by not allowing more than ten people in the store at once, including employees, and putting hand sanitizer at the front of the store.

“The furniture has to be paid for, and that’s sort of impossible to make it happen if you don’t have traffic in here where you can help [customers] out with their needs," Shugart said.

We have asked Wilmington Police if they are patrolling for violations, or simply responding to complaints about businesses that may be out of compliance. We are waiting for a reply.

Under the current orders, tow truck drivers, construction workers, residential pressure washers and window cleaners are allowed to continue operations, but are subject to social distancing requirements. Home improvement stores, hardware stores, grocery stores, and botanical nurseries are deemed “essential” by local government officials and allowed to keep their doors open to customers, but other retailers are much more limited.

The city is allowing cigar shops, clothing stores, arts and craft stores, cell phone stores, book stores, and sporting equipment stores to continue operations for curbside pick-up or delivery only.

Bike shops are allowed to remain open under the Governor’s order, but they are deemed non-essential retail under New Hanover County’s order and are required to close. If a sports equipment store or bike shop has a repair shop component, they are allowed to remain open if they utilize the curb-side and online services, including drop-off and pick-up.

Car dealers that strictly sell cars and do not provide automobile repair may not remain open to the public. Only online sales and curbside pickups may be conducted, subject to social distancing requirements. However, service departments providing car repair are considered essential for transportation and are allowed to remain open.

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