May 18 is still nearly two weeks away, but Massachusetts has already begun easing some business restrictions intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration updated its guidance on Monday to allow certain nonessential retail businesses, from flower shops to car dealerships, to bring back employees for remote sales only.
While the governor’s shutdown order in March allowed such companies to continue making sales over the phone and online (and many did — sometimes against the rules), the clarified guidance says that nonessential businesses can bring a small number of employees back for delivery orders, as long as their stores remain closed to the public.
The change follows lobbying from the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which called on Baker to ease the restrictions ahead of Mother’s Day this Sunday. The administration has already convened an advisory board on reopening the state’s economy, but the scheduled May 18 date for their plan would have been no reprieve for florists on their busiest holiday.
“If you want to pick up flowers for mom, what are you supposed to do?” RAM President Jon Hurt told the State House News Service last week. “Go into Stop & Shop? How does that make sense from even a health standpoint?”
The Baker administration has also received thousands of requests from individual businesses asking to be added to the essential services list, which was largely based on federal guidance and tweaked to reflect the economy of Massachusetts. According to a spreadsheet shared last month by the Office of Housing and Economic Development, more than three dozen of the requests came from flower shops.
As the Boston Business Journal reported Tuesday, the Baker administration has issued 60 cease-and-desist orders to retailers that they said were breaking the rules.
While the essential services list hasn’t changed since March 31, the administration has periodically updated its FAQ page — which had generally prohibited nonessential business owners from letting employees into their bricks-and-mortar workspaces — to make additional clarifications.
In addition to florists, the new guidance opens the door for book shops, jewelers, sporting goods stores, video game stores, and other shuttered retailers to bring back between three and seven employees depending on the size of their facility, as long as they adhere to certain social distancing and sanitation rules.
The order does not allow nonessential retailers to conduct curbside pickup, as other states like New Hampshire have permitted. Orders must either be shipped or delivered by employees without making contact with their customers.
“Items must be left in mailboxes, mailrooms, garages, lobbies, at doorstep, or similar no-contact drop-off points,” the guidance says.
Employees must also stagger lunch breaks, self-administer temperature checks, and immediately self-quarantine for 14 days if they display any symptoms of COVID-19, including a temperature over 100.0 degrees.
The updated guidance also allows car dealerships to make sales exclusively over the phone or online, if they follow the same remote fulfillment rules. However, test drives are still banned, and sales paperwork should be done electronically to the “maximum extent feasible.”
The guidelines, however, allow documents to be filled out in person, if social distancing protocols are followed. They also allow vehicles to be picked up or traded in on an appointment-only basis at the dealership or a customer’s residence.
The original guidance required car dealers to close their showrooms, but allowed them to keep their service departments and garages open. Auto repair was deemed an essential service under Baker’s order.
The administration has worked to temper expectations ahead of the presentation of their broader plan on May 18 to ease restrictions on nonessential businesses. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who co-chairs the advisory board, said Monday that the reopening will come in phases, stressing that it is more important to ensure business activity can resume safely and without inciting a second wave of coronavirus cases.
“It doesn’t mean that the economy across our commonwealth will just reopen,” Polito said. “It’s just not possible.”