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Essential vs. Non-Essential: Understanding the Gray Area

Amid COVID-19 there has been much discussion around what makes a business essential. As many non-essential businesses were forced to close their doors, pushback incurred.

At Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific, we understand it’s not always so black and white. It can be difficult to define exactly what qualifies as an essential business to some, and not others. We’ve spent the last month talking to our customers to learn what they’re going through and where some of this gray area exists – and where it’s actually quite clear.

Take Banfield Pet Hospital. This Northwest veterinary hospital was deemed essential and Banfield staff has worked diligently to ensure that even with open doors, they are taking the utmost precautions. According to Banfield’s COVID-19 landing page, they “support public health through pet care.”

To find out exactly what the means, I spoke to Ari Zabell, senior director of client experience and advocacy at Banfield.

“Part of the reason diseases like rabies, leptospirosis, and parasitism don’t often cause problems in people is because of the preventive action taken by veterinarians,” Zabell explained, which earns them the essential designation.

Additionally, emergency services for everyone’s beloved pets can only be handled by veterinary doctors. Even during a pandemic, your puppy can still swallow a toy – where are you going to bring him or her otherwise? Zabell noted Banfield has still been busy helping with a variety of emergency services.

“During COVID-19, our hospitals have helped clients with a variety of emergencies including bite wounds from a fight with another pet, urinary obstruction requiring emergency catheter placement, and even the delivery of puppies via c-section in a bulldog,” he said.

Still, he admits, there has been pushback from certain people who do not think Banfield or other veterinary hospitals should remain open. To combat valid concerns over the health and safety of Banfield’s communities, many new processes have been put in place to maximize social distancing.

  • Certain Banfield hospitals have been closed and others have changed hours to ensure only the most necessary locations stay open.
  • Drop-off service is required in most cases, meaning pet owners bring their pets up to the curb or hospital door, step back, and allow a Banfield employee to bring the pet inside. Again, in most cases, pet owners are asked to wait in the car.
  • Currently, Banfield is offering pet telehealth for free, meaning clients can use Vet Chat to talk to a vet without leaving the house.
  • Banfield is encouraging all pet owners to fill out forms online ahead of time to streamline processes, including the “authorization to provide care,” “card-on-file,” and “patient drop-off.”

Zabell noted that going digital in this way has been a big step – since the sign-in process is turning into a virtual experience, the hospital has focused on getting its employees tablets to ease the drop-off process and ensuring IT infrastructure is running smooth so customers have a user-friendly experience online.

Veterinary medicines might seem like one of the more cut-and-dry cases of what should be considered essential – your pets’ lives truly depend on it.

But we’ve also spoken to other businesses who are stuck somewhere in the middle.

One business who serves as a vendor for major retail outlets like Lowe’s and Home Depot was allowed to remain open because those big-box stores were deemed essential. The business assembles products such as wheelbarrows, log splitters, mowers and grills – all of which may be essential depending entirely on why it’s being bought and where it’s going.

However, a handful of technicians for this business have received remarks from customers who see them out on delivery, criticizing them for working.

Another small business that handles payment and credit card processing for its clients was not deemed essential, but some of the accounts that it serves were. Meaning this business owner still needed to find a way to operate efficiently and stay open to serve certain clients.

The point is that it can sometimes be hard to discern what is truly essential to some and not to others, just as it can difficult to think about the layers of an essential business and take into account all of their vendors that would also need to remain open for operations to run efficiently. They all rely on each other.

BBB NW+P encourages business owners and consumers to consider the complexities of the economic situation brought on by COVID-19 before casually labeling a business essential or not. And while we don’t have a final say in what can stay open, only state governors can dictate this, we are listening to business owners of all shapes and sizes to understand how they’re being impacted and how we can help or advocate for them.

Because that’s how an economy runs – interdependently.

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Written by Danielle Kane

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