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April 29, 2020

Retailers want employee access to closed stores

Photo | Grant Welker Downtown Worcester in the middle of a weekday during the coronavirus shut down

Planning to order a bouquet of flowers for Mother's Day? Think again.

With the special occasion around the corner, florists are among the non-essential businesses that are being told to remain closed through at least May 18. But some retail industry leaders are starting to ask whether Gov. Charlie Baker's closure order needs to be as strict as it is.

"If you want to pick up flowers for mom, what are you supposed to do? Go into Stop & Shop? How does that make sense from even a health standpoint?" Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst asked.

Other types of a stores like bookshops and jewelers are similarly restricted, unable to even have one employee in a locked storefront to take phone orders for delivery.

Hurst's organization was scheduled to present on Wednesday afternoon to the advisory committee on reopening the economy. Baker appointed the 17-person panel on Tuesday, and tasked Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito with leading the effort to develop a plan by May 18 for a phased-reopening of businesses.

One of the members of the group, Wendy Hudson, is the secretary and a member of RAM's executive committee. She owns Nantucket Book Partners and helped found Cisco Brewers on the island.

Hurst said RAM will present Polito's committee with its thoughts on reopening, but plans to make a special request that the administration consider relaxing its restrictions on employees being allowed to work in closed retail stores and fulfillment centers.

"This is not something we feel we can wait for May 18 for," Hurst said.

Massachusetts, according to RAM, is the only state in the country that hasn't made some type of accommodation to businesses to have employees working out of locked storefronts. Even New York, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, allows for one employee to work from a locked retail store, Hurst said.

"We've gotten to the point where people are just ignoring the governor's order," Hurst suggested, "It's just so out of step and non-flexible, and it doesn't make sense economically or public health wise."

Flower shops, book shops and smoke shops are specifically listed on the state's website as among the business not allowed to be open, under the governor's executive order.

The FAQ section of the website also specifies that the owner of a non-essential business may enter the establishment "as needed to take care of crucial tasks that cannot be done remotely or to retrieve necessary materials or documents," but clearly states that "employees may not go to your bricks-and-mortar place."

The administration on April 7 extended this order to cover warehouses and other in-state fulfillment centers of non-essential businesses.

Winston Flowers, one of Boston's most well-known florists with multiple locations in the city, said this week that it was reopening for the week of Mother's Day, either in defiance of Baker's order or with some type of special permission from the city or state.

The florist on its website and in an email to customers claimed that Winston Flowers is "permitted to operate in a limited capacity by accepting internet orders placed at, rather than over the phone."

Contactless deliveries will be made in Greater Boston and Fairfield County, Connecticut, and 10 percent of all sales will be donated to the Boston Resiliency Fund and the NYC COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, the company's website states.

The Baker administration confirmed that the Retailers Association presented to the Reopening Advisory Committee on Wednesday and laid out the existing rules for non-essential businesses, which a spokesman said had not been changed.

The official did not comment directly on Winston Flowers resuming operations, but pointed out that enforcement of Gov. Baker's order falls to the Department of Public Health and local boards of health, and a violation can result in fines.

An email to Winston Flowers was not returned.

The company said the orders would be put together in design studios with a board-certified nurse on hand to monitor all team members' temperatures at the start of each day. The limited staff brought back to work will also be provided personal protective gear and assigned to work spaces that respect social distancing guidelines.

Hurst did not know what made Winston Flowers different from other florists, but said restrictions on smaller retailers would have implications beyond simply limiting a small business owner's ability to operate a delivery service.

Hurst said that 92 percent of his member companies applied for relief under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which awards loans to small businesses that can be forgiven and converted to a grant if a business maintains its payroll.

"We are destined in Massachusetts to have the smallest low-business ratio of grants to loans in the entire country because we're denying these small businesses the ability to have any payroll," Hurst said.

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