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Essential Or Non-Essential? For Some Mass. Businesses, The Definition Is Fluid

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has ordered non-essential businesses in the state to shut their doors because of the coronavirus pandemic. But what is considered “essential” by the state could change.

The definition of an essential business is sometimes obvious, like if a store sells food or toilet paper or medicine.

But if your business is making photocopies or signs?

"Well, that's hard to say," said Carol MacColl, owner of Paradise Copies in Northampton.

On the state website a list is posted— not of every business, but of types of businesses.  

"You have to read through [the list] and see if you fit in or not," MacColl said. "We do work for cities and towns. We do work for other business owners [like] restaurants that are trying to get the word [out] they’re still trying to be open and sell to-go."

MacColl’s shop has been printing takeout menus and signage, she said. They’ve been copying materials for parents who are suddenly educating their children at home (or at least trying to).

Someone from UMass called this week, she said, asking if MacColl's machines could copy and cut patterns for medical masks. 

"So from everything I can come up with, I am thinking that I am an essential business," MacColl said, and she filled out a state application to be designated as such. "If I’m wrong? You know, we want to do the right thing. We want to be here and help if we can. And if someone thinks we should close, we’ll do that, too."

There’s been no response yet from the state, MacColl said. But her advice, if you think you’re an essential business: Stay open until someone tells you otherwise.

Steve Reilly thinks his entire business is essential, but the state doesn’t.

Reilly is a co-owner of Insa, which runs marijuana dispensaries in Easthampton, Springfield and Salem. The state deemed the medical side of his business essential, but not the recreational side.

"We’re obviously taking into consideration a lot of factors — our employees, both their health and also their financial well-being," Reilly said. "Basically, we’ve got to look at our operations and say, 'How do we now run the business with 90% less sales?'"

Reilly said he understands why the governor issued the recent order. Insa is not directly appealing the state’s designation yet, but a trade group it belongs to is criticizing Baker's decision.

Reilly said he's optimistic the status could change because of the important role marijuana plays in some people's lives.

"I think that a lot of people [who] purchase on the adult use side do it for medical reasons," he said. "Not everyone has a [prescription] card. They do it because it makes their life better, and I think you've seen other industries — alcohol’s a good example — that's been determined to be 'essential.'"

In Massachusetts and other states, package stores are on the list of businesses allowed to stay open under the most recent COVID-19 emergency order.

Since mid-March, the word "essential" has seen an almost 200% spike in the number of online lookups at Merriam-Webster dictionary, whose (currently closed) office is based in Springfield.

There are many reasons people go to a dictionary, said Emily Brewster, a Merriam-Webster lexicographer.

"It seems very clear that the word 'essential' is being put to use in these instructions in how we’re supposed to go about our lives," Brewster said. "And it’s this general word that is being asked to take on a very, narrow specific meaning."

And all those lookups of "essential"? People are really thinking about the shades of meaning, Brewster said.

For many businesses, those shades could mean the difference between staying open and closing up shop.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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