Are you essential or not?

Baker issues a list of workers that can stay on the job

GOV CHARLIE BAKER’S list of essential businesses that can remain open for the next two weeks is a statement about what’s important in our society.

Medical facilities and the people who staff them are at the top of the heap in this time of the coronavirus. So are first responders and public safety workers, as well as employees who provide heat, light, water, food, and medicine. All of them can continue heading to their jobs at power plants, grocery stores, and pharmacies.

The list also includes gas stations, laundromats, places of worship, news organizations, and stores that sell pet supplies, auto supplies, home appliances, and home improvement and repair items.

But employees at law firms, development companies, and investment firms are missing from the list and expected to stay at home and work remotely. Even though they are typically highly paid, they aren’t essential.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that liquor stores are deemed essential. Baker said that decision was based largely on guidance from the federal government. Most of the states that have already closed nonessential businesses, including New York, California, and New Jersey, have allowed liquor stores to remain open.

But Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s two-week shutdown order extended to state liquor stores. Tim Holden, the chair of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, said in a statement that closing the stores was a difficult decision that will cause a lot of disruption. “But in these uncertain and unprecedented times, the public health crisis and mitigation effort must take priority over the sale of wine and spirits, as the health and safety of our employees and communities is paramount,” Holden said.

Baker decided medical marijuana businesses were essential. But recreational marijuana was deemed nonessential because, according to Baker, the relatively few stores that exist tend to be crowded and attract people from out of state. Marijuana advocates cried foul, saying recreational marijuana could be sold while maintaining social distancing.

“There are thoughtful ways to do this, but to just knock it out — it isn’t right, and it’s not fair,” said David O’Brien, the president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association. “It’s discriminatory to adult-use cannabis consumers in a state where it’s legal.”

The state’s list of essential jobs has some gray areas. The list includes “workers conducting research critical to COVID-19 response” but says nothing about the vast biopharma sector that has been an important driver of the state’s economy.

Robert Coughlin, the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, sent out an email saying he checked with the Baker administration after the list was released and learned “that all biopharma R&D is essential and exempt.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Baker’s list also includes “plumbers, electricians, exterminators, inspectors, and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences, construction sites and projects, and needed facilities.”

Does that mean a new roof can be put on a house? Does it mean a tree can be cut down and removed from a backyard?

“This list is based on federal guidance and amended to reflect the needs of Massachusetts’ unique economy,” says the introduction to the list. “If the function of your business is not listed above, but you believe that it is essential or it is an entity providing essential services or functions, you may request designation as an essential business.” Click here for the form.