LIMA — There seems to be some confusion on what businesses are considered essential and should remain open during the new coronavirus pandemic.
Hobby Lobby on Lima’s Elida Road, which closed for a week, reopened on Monday and declared itself an essential business in a decision made at the corporate level, according to a local manager at the store. Signs indicated they offered personal protection equipment mask supplies, educational supplies, office supplies and various components for at-home small businesses.
All of these appear to be within the scope of the Ohio Department of Health’s order. Nonetheless, Allen County Public Health began an investigation on whether Hobby Lobby is essential or not.
“The process would be that we would try to contact them by phone because of several phone calls (we’ve received) today just to verify: Is this accurate? Were you closed? Did you reopen?” said Tami Gough, public information office for Allen County Public Health. “Then we will ask them to submit to us their reasoning for considering themselves to be an essential business at this time. Once that is received, then the next steps we’ll enter in and again, that will be new territory, and we will be requesting and receiving some additional guidance from the Ohio Department of Health and the governor’s office on that.”
Local health departments and law enforcement can investigate complaints, but ultimately it’s up to a prosecutor if charges are warranted.
“We are not going to be making any arrests,” said Kevin Martin, chief of the Lima Police Department. “What we will do is we will write a report on our observations, and we will forward that to the (Lima) prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office can make a determination on whether charges would be warranted or not. They may not even decide to file charges. They may wait until after the pandemic is over to make decisions on that, but then again that would be their call.”
Ultimately, a county health department is involved in any investigation.
“The complaints would still go to the health department,” said Andre McConnahea, spokesman for the Allen County Sheriff’s Office. “They can help anybody that would have a complaint about a particular business or employer, whatever that complaint is. They can call the health department and make that complaint. The health department will follow up on that to determine if the complaint is valid.”
In Putnam County, the health department is in the process of gathering data on whether a business is considered essential or not.
“We have reached out to our businesses and asked them if they are remaining open and if they are considering themselves essential,” said Kim Rieman, Putnam County’s health commissioner. “We’re asking them to put that in writing, and then we’re also asking them to tell us how they are meeting the social distancing requirements. For us, it’s not enough for them to say, ‘Yes, we’re essential.’”
County health departments do have the power to investigate.
“The governor’s office said, ‘don’t even go to your health department,’ but it seems like people are just coming to us,” Rieman said. “If we get a call about someone or a complaint from either a worker or somebody out in the community, then we reach out to them and ask them to provide that information to us as well. I’m in the process of reviewing those now, and then we will be reaching out to those businesses that either didn’t provide us all the required information or the ones that we are a little iffy on, and then we’ll be contacting our prosecutor to talk about that.”
Businesses that are considered essential are outlined in the Ohio Department of Health’s order, but there is still a lot of grey area to what is an essential business.
“The definition of essential is quite large, but we have not had anybody that we have felt shouldn’t be open at this point,” Rieman said.
Chief Martin said his department investigated two complaints in Lima regarding businesses remaining open when someone thought they shouldn’t be. One was a bar that was actually in compliance as it served carry-out food. The other was a beauty salon.
“When I went out and talked to the owner of that business, she advised very adamantly she thought that the restriction against your being allowed to operate was to take effect the next day. She didn’t realize it was that day. When we explained that to her, she closed up shop,” Martin said.
Reach Sam Shriver at 567-242-0409.