All kinds of companies have been claiming they provide an “essential” service to the public during the coronavirus pandemic, so they can stay open despite a mounting number of stay-home orders from state and local governments. They include arts-and-crafts chains JoAnn Fabrics and Michaels and the video game seller GameStop.
The refusal of those retail chains to close their doors for the sake of public health has enraged employees and customers who believe their services are anything but essential. One small city in Northern Illinois actually did something about it.
A spokesperson for the McHenry, Illinois, police department confirmed to HuffPost on Wednesday that in recent days it has served cease-and-desist orders against JoAnn Fabrics, Michaels and GameStop, telling the retailers they were violating the stay-home order issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D).
“We did a couple of compliance checks after the governor put in his executive order, and then we did serve them with cease-and-desists after they failed the compliance checks,” said Patrick Polidori, public affairs officer for the McHenry Police Department.
A call to the JoAnn store in McHenry went to a voicemail that said, “Following local government and health officials, our store is currently closed.” A call to the local GameStop went unanswered. A worker who answered the phone at the Michaels location said it was now closed.
Public health experts have warned that people need to maintain a safe distance from one another to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Government officials have cautioned against large gatherings and asked anyone capable of teleworking to do so. Businesses that aren’t essential and require close contact between people have been told to cease operations in several states.
The stay-home rules vary from one jurisdiction to the next, but they tend to follow the Department of Homeland Security guidelines for “critical infrastructure” sectors during an emergency. Examples of critical infrastructure are health care, communications, transportation, banking, and food and agriculture. Companies can keep operating if they meet the criteria.
HuffPost readers: Have you been working at JoAnn Fabrics or Michaels during the coronavirus pandemic? Email our reporter about it.
HuffPost obtained a letter that JoAnn stores provided to workers to show police in the event they are stopped heading to or from work during a stay-home order. In it, the company says JoAnn is essential because it sells products that help people work from home and because its materials are being used to construct masks and other personal protective equipment needed now. The chain has been giving away some materials to be made into masks and gowns for hospitals.
As HuffPost reported Tuesday, Michaels stores have remained open in several states with stay-home orders in place. In a letter to employees, the company cited three reasons why its stores are “essential”: Small businesses rely on them, teachers use them for educational supplies and people “are looking to take their minds off a stressful reality” right now.
GameStop had given its employees a similar letter saying its products help people work from home. After heavy criticism, the company decided to close all its stores to foot traffic as of this past Sunday. The cease-and-desist letter issued in McHenry would have preceded that decision.
Many workers have told HuffPost in recent days that they do not believe their companies provide essential services even though those businesses continue operating. They fear they are endangering their colleagues and customers by working through the pandemic.
“I love my job and what I do,” one worker told HuffPost on Tuesday. “The problem I have here is, is it moral to keep us working?”