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April 23, 2020

Note From Elie: “Essential Services” — A Reflection of Who We Are

Dear Reader,

Never before have I felt so grateful for, and so awed by, grocery store cashiers.  Sure, in normal times (remember those?) I’m unfailingly courteous to cashiers.  I grew up working in food service and retail, so I’ve always respected that work, or any hard work. 

But now, as the Coronavirus crisis envelops us all, I feel this urge at every checkout aisle to look the cashier in the eye and deliver an emotional tribute about how brave and important he or she is.  Don’t worry — I manage to hold back, recognizing that such an outpouring would be thoroughly embarrassing for all involved (and would stall the checkout process).  So I’ll say it now.  To any grocery store cashiers out there, and every food service worker of any type: thank you. 

Of course, those thanks extend well beyond the food industry.  Frontline medical professionals face the most danger and deserve the deepest gratitude of all.  Police officers continue to do difficult jobs that have suddenly become even more dangerous; an astonishing 29 NYPD members have died from the Coronavirus.  And whenever a postal service driver drops off a package, or a public works employee empties the trash, or a trucker pulls into the loading dock behind a shopping center, I’m struck by that same feeling — appreciation and admiration, cut with a bit of discomfort for never previously giving them their proper due. 

If you want to be truly and deeply humbled, and feel overwhelmed by gratitude, take a look at the official guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services on the types of jobs considered “essential.”  The HHS list includes all the obvious gigs: medical, food, utilities, law enforcement.  And it includes dozens of underappreciated services that are not as visible on the frontlines: water and wastewater treatment specialists who allow us to stay home in comfort and safety, mass transit workers who get other essential employees to their jobs, information technology professionals who keep our online services functioning so we can work from home, hazardous materials operators who provide necessary chemicals to manufacturers, and many more.

The HHS list is a useful guide, but it carries no legal force.  The real determinations, the decisions about which businesses are essential and get to remain open (or to re-open), are made at the state level.  Not surprisingly, those decisions vary — at times wildly, even erratically — from state to state.  These determinations about what is or is not “essential” provide revealing psychological insights.  They tell us a lot about ourselves, our politics, and our beliefs.

For example, some states have determined that gun shops are essential businesses.  (HHS, in one of its more controversial classifications, agrees).  This decision turns on a combination of legal and political considerations, and is uniquely polarizing.  Gun rights advocates (a bit apocalyptically) stress the need for self-protection during an emergency, while gun control activists mockingly evoke images of survivalists shooting down zombies.  Perhaps not surprisingly, and somewhat alarmingly, March 2020 ended up as the second-busiest month ever for gun sales in the United States. 

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In another part of the political arena, many states have deemed marijuana dispensaries “essential.”  It seems fair that medicinal marijuana clinics should remain open; even if you suspect some claimed conditions are, shall we say, exaggerated, there certainly are others who legitimately need marijuana for pain management or other medical purposes.  Purely recreational outlets are a bit tougher to defend as “essential,” but they too remain open in several states.  

Alcohol seems to be the less controversial intoxicant, crossing ideological and other dividing lines.  There is broad nationwide consensus on liquor stores: keep ‘em open.  Some states have even relaxed pre-existing restrictions on alcohol purchases.  Indeed, the liquor store is usually the busiest shop on my town’s sleepy Main Street.  Booze: the great uniter.

Some states have even permitted golf courses to stay open.  Let’s be real: we’re pushing it with the definition of “essential” here.  Golf is a lot of things, arguably: fun, relaxing, about as good a workout as you can realistically do in khakis.  But, really: essential?  (Disclaimer: I’ve never played a single round of “real” golf, though I am an absolute assassin at Jersey Shore mini-golf.  Don’t challenge me; you’ve been warned.) 

(Have you seen curious or controversial examples of “essential” businesses in your state?  If so, let us know at [email protected]).

Get used to hearing the phrase “essential services” over the coming months.  Because while these designations can say a lot about a state’s culture, politics, and priorities, they also determine who gets to re-open and who has to remain closed.  For many who own or work at borderline-essential businesses — and there’s at least some argument that virtually every business is essential to something — that decision could determine paychecks, mortgages, livelihoods.  For the general public, these essential vs. non-essential determinations will affect how quickly the economy can recover.  And these decisions inevitably will increase or decrease the risk of Coronavirus continuing to spread. 

It may not seem all that important, in the scheme of things, whether and when the local gym or hair salon or bike shop gets the green light to re-open.  But ultimately, this is how we will return to normal.  No public official will wave a magic wand and give the all-clear and suddenly bring us back to normal all at once — not the President, nor any governor, nor even the Attorney General (despite his absurd threat to sue certain governors who take too long, in William Barr’s estimation, to permit re-openings).  No, the best way to get a sense of where we are in the recovery process is to watch how and when businesses, beyond the obvious “essentials,” come back.  

Re-openings won’t necessarily be linear, or sensible, or organized, but they will tell us a lot about where we are.  Just today, for example, Georgia will permit gyms, hair salons, bowling alleys, and tattoo parlors to re-open (move over, golf courses — tattoo parlors have taken your place atop the “dubious essential classifications” rankings).  South Carolina will follow suit next week, allowing some retail stores and beaches to re-open.  These decisions might eventually prove to be sensible, or wildly reckless, or somewhere in between.  Either way, this is what the process will look like.

In the meantime, take a minute and actually scroll through the HHS list of core “essential” services.  Trust me, it’s worth your time.  See if you don’t feel a genuine sense of awe at the complex latticework of professionals who hold up our country, and of pure gratitude for all that they do to keep us going — even in the most challenging times.  

Stay informed and stay safe,


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Notes from Elie — The Archive