Essential or non-essential, who decides?

It varies across the country and in Mass.

DECIDING WHICH BUSINESSES are essential and which ones are nonessential during a pandemic can sometimes get tricky.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on March 23 banned all medical procedures that are not “immediately medically necessary.” His order said nothing about abortions, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, an outspoken opponent of abortions, ruled that the procedures were covered by the order in part because they would use up resources (medical staff and personal protection equipment) that should be reserved for dealing with COVID-19. The fight ping-ponged back and forth in the courts until an appeals court held that medication-assisted abortions were exempt from the ban.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine set up a Dispute Resolution Commission to sort out differing interpretations of essentiality. In its first set of rulings this week, the panel deemed pet groomers and businesses selling CBD oil are nonessential. Car washes were ruled essential, as long as employees have no interaction with customers and don’t hand-wash or hand-dry vehicles.

In Massachusetts, there have been court challenges to Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision that recreational marijuana and gun shops are nonessential, but otherwise most of the judgment calls about essential vs. nonessential have taken place out of the public eye.

The Berkshire Eagle peels back the curtain on the process a bit with a story on the well-known Annie Selke Cos., which operates a warehouse in Pittsfield that distributes home design products under the Pine Cone Hill, Dash & Albert, Annie Selkie Luxe, Fresh American, and Annie Selke Outlet brands.

According to the story, the operation clearly fell in the non-essential category but Selke indicated she might stay open by shifting production to high-priority items like face masks. Gina Armstrong, Pittsfield’s health director, waited for evidence of the shift but, receiving none, ordered the shutdown of the facility on April 8.

On Friday, city officials conducted an on-site inspection of the warehouse and discovered it was still operating after being given a reprieve by the Baker administration.

“I don’t necessarily agree with the determination or with the exception,” said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer. “I don’t agree, though, that all the other elements of the operation should continue to function.”

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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.

A spokesman for the Baker administration quickly agreed with Tyer’s position. The spokesman said Selke was granted a reprieve only for producing face masks, nothing else. That message was reinforced in an email to Selke, who responded by saying “all is noted and cleared.”

Lori King, the CEO of the Annie Selke Cos., acted as if it was all a big misunderstanding. “We didn’t go against any order,” she said. “We did exactly what the city told us to do.”