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What’s ‘essential?’: Consumers express frustration as stores adjust to new rules

Updated: Apr. 7, 2020 at 5:01 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - As New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington ease into the second week of their local stay-at-home order, retailers are adjusting to the new normal.

The order, which went into effect at 5 p.m. March 30, limits retail shopping to only “essential” items and services.

What counts as “essential” has sparked debate on social media, and resulted in numerous questions to local officials and the WECT Newsroom.

“The goal is to prevent people from general perusing and shopping at stores that would put them in close contact with others that could lead to the spread of the virus,” said New Hanover County spokesperson Jessica Loeper.

For stores that sell a mixture of essential and non-essential items, the order tells retailers to curtail sales of items that are not essential, and “rope off” sections of stores that encourage casual browsing.

Information up to date as of April 7 at 5 p.m.
Information up to date as of April 7 at 5 p.m.(WECT)

Non-essential businesses are still allowed to conduct sales, as long as those transactions are made over the phone or online and orders are filled through curbside pickup or delivery.

Loeper said the county legal department has been contacted by numerous stores asking specific questions about certain products, while others have used their own judgement to make those decisions.

Many of the calls, emails and social media messages to WECT have involved crowds at home improvement stores, with concerns the stores are discouraging social distancing by remaining open.

Under the county’s order, hardware, building supply and landscaping materials are all considered “essential,” and while stores are encouraged to practice social distancing by limiting the number of people inside or through other means, they can stay open.

Garden centers attached to home improvement stores, or stand-alone garden shops, can remain open for the purpose of selling landscaping materials and plants.

However, “gift shops” or sections of these kinds of stores that sell items that are not used in essential activities — such as construction and landscaping — should be closed off, Loeper said.

Large retailers or big box stores such as Walmart, Target and Costco have the same responsibility to limit the sale of and access to non-essential items.

That includes clothing — all clothing retail has been deemed non-essential under the county’s order.

At first, the county believed places like thrift stores could remain open, even though a large part of those businesses is clothing retail, but that stance has since changed.

Information up to date as of April 7 at 5 p.m.
Information up to date as of April 7 at 5 p.m.(WECT)

“The legal team has determined that the inside portion of [thrift] stores is considered non-essential retail and must close. However, the stores can continue to take in and pick up donations and continue with all other charitable activities in the community for the populations they serve,” Loeper said.

Furniture has been another hot-button item at these stores, with the owner of a furniture store complaining of “selective enforcement” when he was cited for selling furniture, but some larger retailers had not been.

Where these stores sell essential items — such as groceries, personal hygiene items, cleaning supplies, auto repair materials, building supplies and landscaping materials — employees and customers are required to practice social distancing to the fullest extent they are able.

“However, the police do not have authority to enforce internal business practices regarding social distancing or to intervene in disagreements between employees and employers on what practices should be employed,” states a guidance document published by the city.

The details of these orders have changed frequently, sometimes day-by-day in the last few weeks as local governments have adjusted their responses to the virus.

County officials gave the example of fabric — which at first was deemed non-essential, but reinstated as essential when the CDC deemed fabric masks appropriate.

By declaring a State of Emergency, local governments have the legal ability to make these changes, but officials say because of the unprecedented nature of this emergency compared to say a hurricane or ice storm, things have been more complicated.

“The county and city are working together daily to answer questions, provide clarification, and ensure consistency – because these are definitely uncharted waters for all of us,” Loeper said.

Just as Governor Roy Cooper’s office gave businesses the option of appealing a designation as non-essential, the city and county encourage businesses with questions about how to best attempt to keep their businesses going while adhering to the new rules.

“The guidance and information is quickly and continuously evolving,” Loeper said, referencing the county’s change in stance regarding fabric and mask-making materials now allowed.

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