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Bored shoppers crowd 'essential' stores for nonessentials

It's easy to see how essential it is to keep nurses, scientists and grocery workers on the job during the coronavirus pandemic. But dog groomers? Paint mixers? Bookstore employees? That gets a little more controversial.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order last week, mandating all nonessential businesses to close, in order to stem the spread of Covid-19.  But stores that sell essential items, such as pet food and hardware, are exempt.

Employees at Home Depot and Lowe's understand the need for their stores to provide essential goods: someone's pipe might burst, their toilet, furnace or refrigerator might break down. Construction was deemed an essential business until Cuomo banned all nonessential projects Friday, so contractors needed access to supplies, too. And the store sells essentials like cleaning supplies and toilet paper.

But what they can't understand is why their safety is being put in jeopardy so that people can buy things like patio furniture, grills and gardening supplies. Many customers in stores, workers said, are home improvement hobbyists looking to take advantage of their newfound downtime at home.

Those against Lowe's and Home Depot's open-door policy have been vocal on social media.

Alicia Matesic's mother works at a Lowe's store in Erie County and they're both worried. Matesic said the crush of traffic is unabated, and she feels "everyone's health and safety should be of first priority.

"The risk Lowe's is taking by allowing full access to its stores and not limiting numbers, is completely avoidable and unnecessary in my opinion, as well as contributing to the longevity of this health crisis our entire nation is facing," she said.

"I am a nervous wreck," Lisa Taylor wrote on the Lowe's Facebook page. "There is no way those employees can elude this virus. I am practicing social distancing but what good does that do when my husband is in contact with hundreds of people while at Lowe’s working?"

Others share similar sentiments. "You should be ashamed," wrote Raymond Melms on Facebook. "Close down."

Some workers and their families complain that customers are treating the quarantine like a staycation, the perfect time to do a little work around the house.

"They need to stay home unless it's an essential item not just because they are bored and want to redecorate," Vanessa Kemp, a Home Depot employee, wrote on Facebook.

For the sake of curbing the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, entire industries have been idled and millions are out of work. Yet the paint counters at the home improvement stores are crowded. Customers jam together and near workers. Seniors and children walk around browsing just to kill time.

Home Depot employee Sarah Branscombe said customers "need to get a grip."

"I was helping out in paint today and had a lady walk up with a huge stack of paint chips," Branscombe wrote on Facebook. "She proceeded to show me pics of the front of her house, asking me what color should she paint her front door, like we’re having coffee or something."

Some workers, their families and some consumers have urged stores to rope off non-essential items or limit the number of customers allowed into stores at once.

Margaret W. Smith, a Home Depot spokesperson, did not answer questions about customers making nonessential purchases but said the company has stepped up cleaning and social distancing procedures and is "remaining open to support the needs of communities, just as we have always done during any crisis or natural disaster."

Lowe's did not return a request for comment.

At Petsmart, groomers complained of working with as many as eight other people, together in small rooms giving dogs baths and haircuts. Roughly 4,600 people signed a petition asking PetSmart to close its doors, and the chain partly bowed to that pressure over the weekend. It closed its in-store salons and training classes, but has kept the rest of the stores open as usual. Some local pet stores, including Elmwood Pets Supplies, have closed stores to the public, but offer drive-up service.

Talking Leaves bookstore is not an essential business, but it would like to be. The Elmwood Avenue company requested an exemption under Cuomo's executive order mandating the idling of nonessential businesses.

"We realize that books are not essential on the level of food, health and medical care, etc., but in this time of extreme crisis, disruption and anxiety reading provides a necessary oasis, a spring filled with knowledge, learning, wonder, solace and escape," the company wrote in a letter to customers.

With schools closed, learning materials and educational entertainment are more important than ever, it said. Amazon has shifted priorities to household essentials, and is no longer ordering or shipping books. Talking Leaves doesn't want to open for business as usual, it said. It just wants to offer curbside service with a limited staff. Workers would be given the option to work or stay home and collect unemployment, said Jonathon Welch, co-owner of Talking Leaves.

Ingram, a national book distributor and a major supplier to most independent booksellers, has been deemed an essential business in all the states where it maintains warehouses.

"It makes sense that the stores that it supplies should also have that designation," Welch said.

Video game retailer GameStop faced widespread backlash when it deemed itself an essential business amid the pandemic. The company said its computer sales were vital to the millions of people now working from home – but most GameStop stores don't sell computer equipment. The company closed stores except for curbside pickup after a public outcry.

The State Attorney General's office has set up a hotline and email contact for employees to report Covid-19-related workforce violations. Workers can report any business in the state that fails to comply with Cuomo's rules, including workforce reduction, physical distancing and closure. The hotline is 212-416-8700 and the email address is labor.bureau@ag.ny.gov. 

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