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Essential Businesses during COVID-19: Identification and Operation FAQs

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to classify your business as “essential” could be the key to its survival. Almost every state in the United States has imposed a “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” order that restricts the types of businesses that can remain open. In fact, as of the writing of this alert, there are only seven states that have not imposed state-wide restrictions on which businesses can stay open during the Coronavirus pandemic and even those states have individual cities and counties that have imposed stricter orders. However, these orders are not always clear, and interpretation is often left to the individual business. This alert will answer some of the most common questions about essential businesses.

Q: When did all of this “essential business” business start and how long will it last?

California was the first state to issue a stay-at-home order on March 19, 2020. Since then, governors all over the country have been telling businesses to close and people to stay home whenever possible to stem the spread of COVID-19. For example, Ohio’s Stay at Home Order took effect on March 23, 2020 while South Carolina’s Order was not put in place until April 7, 2020.

Each governor has also set their own time frame for lifting stay-at-home orders. Consequently, there are end dates spanning from April 15 to June 10. Individual orders aside, the climbing number of confirmed cases and deaths makes it clear that removing orders will not be a quick process. Even if states do work together to reopen businesses, expect reopening to be a very gradual process led by the states.

Q: What is an essential business anyway?

Every state, and even some counties and cities, have different definitions of what makes a business “Essential”. However, there are some commonalities. For example, a citation to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) updated Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response is almost universal. If your business fits into one of the 17 categories listed in CISA Memorandum, then you are likely an essential business. Some examples of essential businesses include:

  • Supermarkets and grocery stores
  • Pharmacies
  • Garbage collection
  • Healthcare operations
  • Hardware stores
  • Gas stations and auto-repair shops
  • Banks
  • Post offices and shipping businesses
  • Veterinary clinics and pet stores
  • Farmers' markets and food banks
  • Educational institutions, for the purposes of facilitating distance learning
  • Agriculture and food processing
  • Warehousing, storage, and distribution
  • Transportation, including airlines, taxis, rideshare programs, and vehicle rentals
  • Businesses that allow other essential businesses to operate

In contrast, these are examples of businesses largely agreed to be nonessential:

  • Theaters
  • Gyms and recreation centers
  • Salons and spas
  • Casinos and racetracks
  • Shopping malls
  • Sporting and concert venues
  • Daycares (open in some states, e.g. Florida allows childcare centers to remain open for employees working at essential businesses or operations and Ohio has established temporary pandemic childcare center licenses)

Orders from many states are fairly open-ended and definitions of essential businesses are subject to interpretation. In Ohio, for example, Lt. Governor Husted has asked businesses to use their common sense to decide whether they are essential. However, consider the Hobby Lobby scenario when deciding if your business is essential. Hobby Lobby argued that they provided fabric for mask-making and educational supplies and were, therefore, an essential business. Employees and other Ohio citizens took issue with this classification and brought it to the attention of the government. Not only did Hobby Lobby suffer a hit to their public image, they were also forced to close all stores after receiving a cease and desist letter from the Attorney General. 

Q: Okay, I think I’m an essential business, can I operate like normal?

Even if you are considered an essential business, you may not be able to operate normally. In almost all states, essential businesses are required to follow social distancing requirements established by the CDC, including:

  • Promoting remote work as much as possible;
  • Maintaining six-foot social distancing for both employees and members of the public at all times;
  • Requiring employees to wash hands with soap and water for at least twenty seconds as frequently as possible or use hand sanitizer, covering coughs or sneezes (into the sleeve or elbow, not hands);
  • Providing protective equipment (masks and gloves) to employees;
  • Regularly cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces;
  • Adopting policies to prevent workers from entering the premises if they display COVID-19-like symptoms.

One point of contention between states is whether an essential business can maintain all operations or only those operations that make them essential. This answer will depend on the wording of your state’s order. For example, in Ohio and Florida, as long as your essential business is practicing proper safety protocols to protect workers, all aspects of a business could remain open. However, Michigan’s Order requires “restricting the number of workers present on premises to no more than is strictly necessary to perform the business’s or operation’s critical infrastructure functions” so the business would be able to maintain only operations that are directly essential.

For more information, contact Ashley Watson at abwatson@bmdllc.com or 614.7518, or any member of the BMD L+E team.

Lessons Learned: Five Tips for Buying or Selling a Practice

If you are anticipating buying or selling a practice during the coming months, you are not alone. The healthcare industry is experiencing a wave of integration. In fact, it has been occurring for several years. Many transactional healthcare attorneys have negotiated and closed dozens of these transactions for clients. They have negotiated on behalf of the sellers in some cases and the buyers in others.

Ramping Up – A Quick Guide to Pressing COVID-19 Employment Law Issues

As the country continues to grapple with a global pandemic that now seems to be never-ending, businesses everywhere are waking up to realize that the calming of the COVID-19 employment issues over the summer has come to an end. As cases rise exponentially in all 50 states as we head into the winter months, the number of employment issues related to COVID-19 will also increase dramatically. For these reasons, it is important that we return to the employment law basics that were covered this prior spring, while highlighting the many lessons we have learned along the way. As COVID-19 matters and concerns continue to hinder the working environment of every business, it is important that you reference this review to guide you through these tough issues and questions.

Your Workplace Under Biden

This is my favorite recurring post – Predictions of How a New Administration Will Affect Your Workplace. Four years ago, we accurately called the emasculation of the 2016 proposed FLSA Overtime Rules (the salary exemption threshold was set at $35,568 in 2019, rather than $47,476 as proposed), we forecasted a conservative shift of the NLRB and its results (a roll-back of employee rights, social media policy evaluations, and joint employer rules), and we nailed the likelihood of multiple conservative appointments to the United States Supreme Court and its long-term effects (although I completely failed to predict that my ND classmate Amy Coney Barrett would fill the final vacancy during the Trump administration). This time, the L+E Practice of BMD has decided to make it a group effort at predicting what will happen, what probably happen, and what might happen under President Biden. As always, please save this in your important files and pull it out four (or eight) years from now to judge our accuracy.

HHS Provider Relief Funds Reporting Requirements: Important Updates Every Provider Should Know

HHS continues to revise its reporting requirements for the use of the Provider Relief Funds. Providers with more than $10,000 in Provider Relief Fund payments must report on the use of the funds through December 31, 2020. The reporting window will begin on January 15, 2021 and providers must complete reporting obligations for FY 2020 by February 15, 2021 through a portal designed by HHS. However, providers that have unexpended funds as of December 31, 2020, will have an additional 6 months to use the remaining funds through June 30, 2021. These providers must submit a second and final report no later than July 31, 2021.

Should I Apply for Phase 3 Funds? Important Considerations Every Provider Should Know

On October 1, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) announced an additional $20 billion in new funding for providers through a Phase 3 distribution. Importantly, providers that previously received HHS Provider Relief Funds or already received payments of approximately 2% of annual revenue from patient care are eligible to apply. Eligible providers have until November 6, 2020 to apply for these Phase 3 Funds. However, the question from providers continues to be: Should I Apply for Phase 3 Funds?