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These stores are ‘essential’ in the pandemic. Not everyone agrees.

As the country struggles to contain the coronavirus, it is clearly critical that doctors, nurses, police and firefighters remain on duty. But what is so essential about bicycle sellers, marijuana-plant trimmers and people who make tiny metal springs?

They are just a few of the groups of workers whose jobs have been deemed so important that they are working while most residents of the New York metropolitan area are hunkered down under stay-at-home orders.

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To slow the spread of the virus, the governors of New York, New Jersey and more than 15 other states have limited activity to operations they call essential. Each state has published its own list spelling out which services fit the definition.

But those edicts have raised questions about why some types of work are essential during this crisis and others are not. Many businesses have appealed the restrictions, and some have been successful, causing the states to tweak their lists.

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Carlos Romero, manager of Bike Stop in the Astoria neighborhood in Queens, has been one beneficiary.

After Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all nonessential businesses in New York would have to close indefinitely, Romero began telling his employees that they were likely to be laid off.

“We were prepared to shut down,” he said.

Bike shops were not on the original list of businesses that would be allowed to stay open.

But that set off an uproar among cycling advocates who argued that bicycles were a necessary mode of travel for people who feared getting infected with the coronavirus on public transit.

Soon, Bike Stop was so busy that Romero said he had to regulate the flow of customers into his small store. “A lot of it is panic shopping at this point,” he said.

Some customers have bought bikes to commute and others to ride for pleasure as an escape from cramped apartments. He sold out of several models and was working to replenish his inventory.

“I plan to stay open as long as we can,” Romero said.

Bike shops were one of the categories added to New Jersey’s list of essential businesses Wednesday — but only for repairing bikes, not selling them.

Other additions to New Jersey’s list included stores selling livestock feed, farming equipment, plants and gardening supplies as well as shops that sell and repair mobile phones.

A state official said that with the shift by schools to remote learning and by doctors to telemedicine, it quickly became obvious that omitting phone stores from the list had been a mistake.

In New Jersey, those decisions are being made by the governor’s lawyers and emergency management officials. In New York, the arbiter is Empire State Development, the economic development agency.

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New York and New Jersey both barred restaurants and bars from seating customers but allowed food and beverage sellers, including liquor stores, to remain open.

In Big Flats, New York, a town about 70 miles west of Binghamton, a factory that makes candy clusters called Turtles has continued to operate because making food of any kind has been deemed essential, said Carlos Canals, managing director of Pladis North America, which owns the factory.

One employee at the factory, known as DeMet’s Candy Co., said as many as 70 people work on a shift — too many to allow them to stay 6 feet apart. In an attempt to protect them, the company hung plastic partitions and reduced the airflow inside the factory, the person said.

“They are playing with our life and should not be an essential business,” the worker said, who declined to be identified speaking about her employer. “Chocolate is a luxury.”

Canals said installing the plastic barriers was one of many precautions taken at its factories in New York and Pennsylvania. Others included “strict social distancing” and “increasing workstation distance,” he said.

New York and New Jersey also have allowed construction to continue, not just on critical infrastructure but on luxury apartment buildings as well.

That has sparked criticism from workers who fear exposure to the fast-spreading and potentially deadly virus.

“I would get it if we were building hospitals,” a 32-year-old carpenter working on an office renovation in Manhattan said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not have permission from his employer to talk to reporters. “But what office is going to move in after we finish? Because they are not allowed to return to work.”

States have taken different stances on gun shops, with some, including Ohio and Michigan, deeming them essential but others, including New York and New Jersey, ordering them closed. In Los Angeles, a disagreement arose between the county’s top lawyer and its sheriff after long lines formed outside gun shops that had remained open.

In some states, there have been disputes about whether golf courses can remain open.

States, of course, had differed on how to regulate sales of marijuana long before the pandemic. New York and New Jersey have allowed sales of medicinal marijuana to continue.

At Harmony Dispensary in Secaucus, New Jersey, Gov. Philip Murphy’s stay-at-home order set off a rush to stock up on marijuana, said Shaya Brodchandel, the company’s chief executive.

“We’ve seen a real spike,” Brodchandel said, noting that March 15 was the dispensary’s busiest day ever.

New rules limiting how many patients could be inside the building resulted in a line that stretched to the parking lot. This week, Brodchandel said, he switched to having patients pick up their marijuana without leaving their cars.

A team of 40 workers has been running the operation, 10 of them taking orders and making sales and about 30 tending to plants in a separate, 15,000-square-foot grow house, he said.

Few of his employees, he said, had balked at working during the pandemic.

“Our employees understand the medicine that they’re producing and the importance of it in the community,” he said. “They’ve been so helpful and understanding about being on the front lines. Coming in contact with hundreds of patients every day, they’ve been doing it like champions.”

At two manufacturing operations in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, managers have explained to workers why they were expected to keep making springs and connectors for circuit boards.

“Most of them would just as soon stay home if they had their druthers,” said Steve Kempf, chief executive of Lee Spring.

Kempf explained that the products they were helping to supply include ventilators, heart pumps and other equipment used in hospitals. “We’re not keeping open just for the sake of keeping it open,” he said.

Employees who work in the company’s headquarters office were told to work from home, Kempf said, but about 30 production workers have been “working full out.”

He said he split the workers into two shifts to maintain social distancing, ordered them to take regular breaks to wash their hands and supplied protective suits and masks to those who wanted them. Only a few were too worried about the virus to keep working, he said, and “we’re absolutely approving their staying home.”

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Nearby in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, IEH Corporation is offering an “attendance bonus” of $300 per paycheck to reward workers for continuing to make and ship connectors that go into military equipment, said David Offerman, the company’s chief executive.

Offerman said that some of his employees were working from home and that he had sent home everyone who was older than 65 or had health problems that might make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus. In all, he said, fewer than half his 215 employees were still working.

Most of IEH’s customers are contractors to the Department of Defense, including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. That role lands IEH on the federal government’s list of critical manufacturers, Offerman said.

To encourage his workers, he said, he sent them an email explaining that they were helping to produce radios used by the National Guard, which has been called up to help in coronavirus hot spots.

“Those radios do not ship without our connectors in them,” Offerman said he told them.

Whether or not they are working in the factory, all IEH employees are being paid this week, Offerman said.

“Right now, everybody that’s out is getting paid as if they’re here,” he said. “There’s way too many people in the country right now that are losing their jobs or are being forced to stay home without pay.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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