During times of emergency, such as a natural disaster or a pandemic, local, state and federal government guidelines will advise the closing of "non-essential" businesses and services while allowing "essential" ones to be open. What qualifies as an essential business will vary based on the jurisdiction.
What Are Essential Businesses and Services?
While there will be differences depending on where you live, there is a generally agreed upon definition of what an essential business and service is. The Department of Homeland Security issued a guideline on what it considers the "essential critical infrastructure workforce" which, while it is not a directive from the federal government, provides guidance to city, county and state officials. The guideline from DHS defines essential workers as ones who:
- "Conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continued critical infrastructure viability"
- "Support crucial supply chains and enable functions for critical infrastructure"
List of Essential Services
Under the DHS guidelines, there are several types of workers identified as providing essential services. These broad categories cover workers related in all aspects of activities that support that area of the economy and infrastructure.
Chemical describes workers who support chemical and industrial gas supply chains, produce protective cleaning and medical equipment and single use plastics for packaging of essential supplies. This includes operations, transport personnel, facilities maintenance, lab technicians and support and IT staff.
Commercial facilities includes workers who are involved with building materials from production through transportation to sales and installation. It also includes workers who support ecommerce functions, hardware and building stores, electronics, technology and appliances as well as workers who repair and maintain residential and commercial equipment such as HVAC systems, plumbing, electrical and more.
Communications includes private and government employees who are involved in any aspect of running the country's communications networks, including fiber optic cables, wireline and wireless providers, cable service providers, and media such as radio and television that support front-line news reporting. This also includes staff who help support services for home and business use and retail employees who sell related supplies.
Critical manufacturing refers to workers in facilities that manufacture materials and products required to supply any of the other essential services listed here. This includes metals, semiconductors, minerals, medical equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), communications devices, electronics and more.
Defense Industrial Base
Defense industrial base includes workers who support national security including government workers in the Department of Defense, members of the U.S. military and all support staff related to the maintenance and operations for these functions.
Emergency services includes law enforcement, first responders, social service workers, 911 call center employees, EMTs, fire and rescue service.
Energy includes workers involved in all aspects of the energy sector including those involved in infrastructure, IT, security, mining, processing, manufacturing, logistics, transportation and maintenance.
Financial covers workers who are needed to keep the nation's banking and financial system working, such as lenders, brokers, call center employees, tellers, and any staff who support these operations.
Food & Agriculture
Food and agriculture includes anyone working in agriculture, food manufacturing, food distribution, as well as workers in restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores, convenience stores, and pet food supply stores.
Government facilities involves anyone who provides essential government functions at the local, tribal, territorial, state or federal level including support staff. This includes teachers, election staff, workers in the judicial system, census employees, and licensing staff.
Healthcare & Public Health
Healthcare and public health which includes anyone in the medical profession actively providing care to patients as well as researchers, administrators, lab personnel and support staff. This also includes veterinarians and veterinary clinic staff.
Hygiene Products & Services
Hygiene products and services involves workers who provide cleaning services such as laundry, dry cleaning, commercial and residential janitorial services and workers who work to manufacture hygiene products.
Information technology covers workers who support command centers, client service centers, and any aspect of information technology related to any of the essential services listed here.
Nuclear Reactors, Materials & Waste
Nuclear reactors, materials and waste covers workers who are involved with managing hazardous materials whether it's from a nuclear, medical or manufacturing facility.
Residential & Shelter Facilities & Services
Residential and shelter facilities and services includes employees who provide social services and other support services to populations in need and the elderly, animal shelter staff, and workers who construct homes and who provide property leasing, management and maintenance. It also includes residential pool and lawn care services and pest control services.
Transportation systems covers workers who provide transportation of goods, services and people, such as airline pilots and crews, truck drivers, mass transit staff and bus drivers as well as workers supporting those services like maintenance technicians, automotive repair, DMV employees, truck and rest stop area employees, towing companies. It also include gas stations.
Water includes workers who support providing clean drinking water and wastewater/drainage systems as well as workers at public works facilities.
Essential Business and Services May Vary
Depending on where you live, some businesses and services may be deemed essential where they might not be in other locations.
- For example, rural areas may list gun stores as essential where hunting is an important part of that community's life, but in urban areas they might not be considered essential. Gun stores may also be considered for providing the public with self defense, though cities that have made them nonessential argue that keeping guns and ammunition sales down will make the public safer.
- Some communities may allow restaurants and bars to stay open, whereas others will consider them non-essential, allowing consumers to find food at grocery stores instead. Restaurants may be closed to prevent gatherings of people, although many are allowed to be open with severe restrictions on customer contact in place. They may only be allowed to provide takeout and delivery service.
- Certain states allow establishments such as smoke shops, marijuana dispensaries and liquor stores to remain open as essential. These are often allowed to stay open in order to ease the burden of people with substance abuse problems who would suffer severe withdrawal without access. On the other hand, the argument for keeping them closed is that people during crisis can become destructive and suffer mental health declines, and keeping them away from substances like alcohol makes the public safer.
- Cities where bike commuting is popular may allow bike shops to stay open rather than considering it a nonessential recreational service.
- While home supply stores are considered an essential business, some locations allow home business and office supply stores to stay open while others do not, though this may change with the increase in home remote workers.
- Churches may or may not be considered essential, and churches that are allowed to stay open may be required to hold services online to avoid gatherings of people.
- In some states and cities, golf courses have been allowed to stay open, despite other recreational facilities being closed. This may be due to the need to allow people physical activities to reduce stress, and golf can be played with minimal contact with other people.
- Other communities may allow nonessential businesses to stay open but heavily limit their hours and how they run their business and processes for customer contact.
Nonessential Businesses and Services
It helps to have an understanding of what is commonly considered a nonessential business or service when determining which ones are indeed essential. Generally, a nonessential business or service is either focused on recreation or entertainment. These are services that people enjoy but are not essential for daily living. Examples are movie theatres, sports venues, hair and nail salons, gyms, and parks and recreation facilities.
How to Determine What Is Open Where You Live
If you are trying to figure out what businesses and services are available to you in a crisis, you should contact your local city officials first. Your local department of public health and department of emergency management as well as the office of your city council and mayor should have information on what they have allowed to be open and any restrictions on business operations. Statewide restrictions can be found through your state government's main websites, as well as your state department of health and human services. You can also contact your state governor's office for information. Finally you can contact specific businesses in question to see if they are open, as well as check their websites and social media.
Essential Businesses in Other Countries
Outside of the U.S., other countries follow similar guidelines for what is considered essential and non-essential businesses and services during a crisis. For example, during the COVID-19 quarantine in 2020, non-essential businesses were ordered closed throughout the world. These lists may change, depending on the situation and over time, so always check trusted government authorities for the most accurate and current information.
The United Kingdom considers non-essential businesses to be food and drink establishments (unless they provide takeout and delivery), salons, tattoo parlours, hotels (with a few exceptions), parks, libraries, community centers, houses of worship (except to perform funerals or provide social services), laundromats, post offices, museums, galleries, nightclubs, theatres, sports venues, massage parlors, gyms, and arcades.
Retail stores must be closed unless they food, medical supplies, gasoline, bicycles, hardware, agricultural supplies, pet supplies and alcohol. Essential businesses and services include hospitals, healthcare providers, veterinarians as well as businesses that support infrastructure such as mass transit, utilities, water, telecommunications and sanitation.
In Australia, businesses that are considered non-essential include places that supply liquor to be consumed on location such as a pub, hotels, gyms and sports centers, saunas, pools, museums and galleries, libraries, casinos, movie theatres and nightclubs, community centers, strip clubs, amusement parks, churches, playgrounds and tattoo parlors. Restaurants can remain open if they provide takeout service and hair salons can provide service if proper social distancing can be employed. Churchs can still provide funerals and weddings.
Mexico's government allows businesses that provide for economic activity and government offices to remain open. These business include ones that provide financial services, gas distribution and gas stations, drinking water distribution, manufacturing of food and alcoholic beverages through transportation and retail sale of these products, grocery and convenience stores, transportation services, agricultural and livestock companies, chemical and cleaning product producers, hardware stores, nurseries and daycares, nursing homes, women's shelters, IT and telecommunications, emergency and funeral services, and logistics covering airports, train railways and shipping ports.
Italy allows only retail businesses that sell groceries and "consumer staples" to stay open. This includes pharmacies, pet stores, newsstands, tobacco shops, optical and photography stores, computer and electronics stores, appliance stores, gas stations, hardware shops and stores that sell fuel for heating. They also allow laundries and dry cleaning stores, banks, financial services, and businesses that cover agriculture and livestock to stay open. Mass transit remains open but in a reduced format allowing for essential travel only.
Spain's government considers essential services ones that are necessary for providing for basic human social, health and security functions, as well as the economy. This includes any business that works in the food supply chain, from production to distribution to retail sale; companies that produce, distribute and sell medicines, sanitary products and animal feed; restaurants and hotels if they provide home delivery or takeout services; sanitary services, manufacturing companies, transportation services for people and products, as well as staff for penitentiaries, rescue and emergency services, private security, healthcare centers, nursing and group homes, veterinarians, the media, and financial services, IT, telecommunications, legal, and cleaning companies. This also includes government services such as the post office, water distribution, and maintaining refugee camps.
In Canada, essential services are outlined under the National Strategy for Critical Infrastructure as "the processes, systems, facilities, technologies, networks, assets, and services essential to the health, safety, security or economic well-being of Canadians and the effective functioning of government." Canada put these businesses and services into ten sectors: energy and utilities, information and communication technologies, finance, health, food, water, transportation, safety, government, and manufacturing.
Saudi Arabia only allows government agency workers who are involved with health, security, military and electronic security to stay open. Businesses that can remain open are pharmacies, supermarket, food supply stores, and restaurants that allow for takeout and delivery. Charitable societies can remain open with reduced staffing.
Understanding the Criteria for Essential Services and Businesses
During an emergency when the government has declared that only essential businesses and services may stay open, it's important to know the distinctions between "essential" and "nonessential." The easiest way to determine what is likely to be open or not is if the business or service is something required to get through daily life physically and mentally healthy and safe. Whether it's public sanitation, keeping the lights and Internet and phone lines working or providing food and healthcare, essential services and businesses are critical to keeping communities functioning.