Editorial: What does it mean to be essential?

Editorial Board

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, most states have issued stay-at-home orders and closed down all non-essential businesses in order to mitigate the spread of the virus. Yet, it seems that we need to ask what an “essential” business really is, and how essential the workers of these businesses are to us.

Gas stations, grocery stores, pharmacies and hospitals are remaining open during the crisis. However, do we treat the workers staffing these places with the respect they deserve, considering their work is necessary for our survival and well-being? 

One 27-year-old grocery store clerk, Leilani Jordan, continued working through the pandemic, until she came down with the virus and eventually died from it. She had reported that her store was understaffed and that workers were not provided gloves or hand sanitizer. Employees were actually told to bring their own hand sanitizer—an almost impossible task right now, as most stores are completely sold out of it. After Jordan’s death, her mother picked up her last paycheck. 

“Twenty dollars and sixty four cents,” her mother said. “My baby’s gone because of $20.64. You know what using the proper PPE [personal protective equipment] could’ve done for my baby?” 

Jordan’s parents have also started a GoFundMe page to raise money to cover the cost of medical bills and her funeral.

Grocery stores have to remain open during the pandemic, as people still need a source of food. However, while we deem these places to be essential, we fail to consider the needs of their workers. We leave them to touch products, money and the cards of hundreds of people every day without any PPE. We pay them minimum wage, sometimes as low as $7.25 an hour, to risk their lives. We leave them or their family in debt, risking bankruptcy, in order to afford healthcare, which still may not even be enough to save them if they do get sick.

These stories are not unique to Jordan and grocery stores. Some healthcare workers are given ponchos as protective equipment, and the less fortunate ones are given nothing at all. 

There are, of course, places that will remain open even in the worst of times. As long as businesses are open, there will be people on the front lines working—people who leave their home and family each morning unsure if today will be the day they contract the virus—who are just as essential as the food or gas we are trying to buy. These workers deserve adequate PPE and they deserve a liveable and respectable wage.

There are a few places that remain open that at first glance seem surprising, and at second glance demonstrate the public health and justice work necessary during and after COVID-19. In many states, liquor stores have remained open, deemed essential. This may at first appear a mistake, but liquor stores must indeed remain open to not only protect alcoholics from resorting to rubbing alcohol or mouthwash, but also to protect them from dying of withdrawal and further overwhelming our stressed healthcare system. This is but one example of a place that must remain open, but acutely requires our attention. 

And then there are places that remain open, but are surely not essential, such as gun stores. Some of these stores are abiding by social distancing standards, limiting the number of people allowed in the store at one time, as well as moving to appointment-only service to further limit the number of customers. However, this does not diminish the fact that there is no health or safety justification for keeping these stores open and essential in 30 states, putting additional workers at unnecessary risk. And keeping these stores open has also contributed to the surge in gun and ammunition sales nationwide. One ammunition website has experienced a 309% increase in revenue sales, while many gun stores have seen a 40-50% increase in sales. Having more guns in households, especially as more children are staying home from school, is only cause for more concern. Before the pandemic, eight children per day suffered unintentional injury or death due to an unlocked gun in the home. Access to a gun at the home also increases the risk of suicide by nearly three times. While this is not a call to ban guns in the U.S., gun stores should be closed during the pandemic, as they will only lead to more injury and death during a time when we need to be even more careful to limit need for hospitalization. 

So while the luckiest of us are able to continue focusing on our school work, and restock our groceries or fill our gas tank up as needed, let’s demand that the people risking their lives to keep these essential businesses open are actually treated as essential. This means calling for a livable wage, working on programs to help people with addictions and demanding that gun stores do not remain among the businesses considered necessary for our survival during this pandemic.