What Businesses Qualify as an "Essential Service" During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Find out which businesses qualify as an "essential service" and which businesses should stay closed.

By , Attorney · Penn State Dickinson School of Law

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, many states and cities have issued stay-at-home orders, requiring individuals to shelter in place and non-essential businesses to temporarily close. Workers and businesses offering "essential" or "critical" services are typically exempt from these orders. However, federal and state legislators have not agreed on a single definition of the term "essential." As a result, similar businesses in different cities might face inconsistent regulations. And, just to make matters more complicated, in some cases you may operate a non-essential business if you do so in the right way (see below).

Overview of Essential Services

Generally speaking, an essential service is one that is necessary for public health and safety. If the government deems the business essential, it may continue to operate while shelter-in-place orders are active. In most areas, the government will not require an essential business to obtain a certificate or verification; the business can simply continue to operate.

However, even essential businesses should implement policies that will protect the health and safety of the community. This might include reducing hours, encouraging social distancing with staff and customers, adopting hygiene and sanitation policies, and allowing employees to work from home when possible. Be sure your sick and family leave policies are in compliance with the law, and that ill employees are encouraged to stay home to self-isolate.

Examples of Essential Businesses

While federal, state, and local governments differ as to the definition of "essential," a number of businesses are typically included on everyone's list. Essential services generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Communications and Information Technology, including media outlets and internet service providers
  • Financial Services, including banks, accounting, payroll, and insurance companies
  • Health Care, such as medical facilities, mental health treatment, pharmacies, urgent dental care, veterinary care, and nursing homes
  • Personal services, such as child care, funeral services, laundromats, and shipping services. These services are critical for the health and safety of the community. By contrast, not being able to get haircuts and tattoos would be merely inconvenient.
  • Public Services, including law enforcement, certain government agencies, homeless shelters, road maintenance, and utilities
  • Retail stores that sell products necessary for health and safety, such as food, sanitation supplies, and products to maintain habitability. This includes grocery stores, farmers' markets, convenience stores, pet food stores, and hardware stores
  • Food supply chain, such as continuing agriculture, supply distribution, and warehouse storage, and
  • Transportation, such as airlines, public transportation, gas stations, taxis, rideshare services, and auto repair.

Non-Essential Businesses

If the government does not list a type of business as essential and the business does not provide goods or services to an essential company, it is non-essential (though it might still be allowed to operate; see the section below). Government resources might list particular businesses that are non-essential. These typically include:

  • Barbershops, salons, spas, and tattoo parlors
  • Bars and clubs
  • Casinos and race tracks
  • Gym and fitness centers
  • Eat-in restaurants
  • Indoor shopping malls
  • Libraries
  • Movie theaters
  • Music and sporting venues
  • Museums and art galleries
  • Public events and gatherings
  • Retail stores not listed as essential

One locality may deem a type of business essential, while a different locality might consider the same service non-essential. If you operate any of these businesses, be sure to check your city and state regulations. Examples of businesses that might or might not be on the "essential" list of a moratorium or order include:

  • Abortion providers
  • Golf courses
  • Gun and ammo suppliers
  • Home office suppliers
  • Liquor stores
  • Marijuana dispensaries
  • Public parks and hiking trails

If you violate the regulations by operating a non-essential business, your business might face penalties. In some areas, you could be charged with a misdemeanor, which means potential jail time and fines. But read on to see whether your non-essential business might still be able to carry on.

Operating a Non-Essential Business in a Legal Manner

You might be able to operate a non-essential business without violating the law, as long as doing so will not result in people violating the shelter-in-place orders. For example, you and your employees might be able to operate the business from home. An accountant could continue to prepare tax forms from home; a yoga teacher might offer classes online instead of in a studio, and a lawyer could offer consultations and prepare documents from home.

Operating a Non-Essential Business in an Illegal Manner

Some owners of non-essential businesses have engaged in the following "work-arounds" to the problem of shuttered doors. These owners have lost sight of the purpose of shelter laws, by doing the following:

  • Thinking that because your office is not open to the public, it's okay to expect your employees to come to work. The point of the shelter law is to keep everyone home, customers and employees alike. Even if you have a small office with few employees and you do not interact with the public, expecting your employees to show up would break the rules, because the workers would be violating the shelter law.
  • Offering curbside pick-up or service. Restaurants can do this because they're essential. Your florist shop is not, and delivering flowers and ornamental plants to homeowners who order ahead and pick them up curbside might violate your law, because it results in the customers leaving home.

Where to Find More Information

It is important to check with your local government agencies, including state, county, and city government websites, to see what regulations may apply to you. Some areas do not provide as much guidance as others, and it can be difficult to determine if your business is essential. You can check with other similar businesses in your area to see how they are interpreting the rules. However, if the other business is wrong, this is no defense to violating the regulation and you could still face a penalty. If in doubt, it is best to contact a government official.

Finally, understand that these regulations are changing frequently as time goes on. Be sure to check back for updates, such as when the orders might be lifted, and additional regulations that could apply to your business.