The “shelter in place” order, which began Tuesday across much of the Bay Area, brought confusion as to which businesses were “essential” and could remain open.
Owners, managers and workers faced a complex set of challenges, from protecting themselves from the widening pandemic the orders were meant to stem, to dealing with swiftly changing rules handed down by authorities. Grocery, hardware and convenience stores are among those considered essential, but retailers selling consumer goods are not.
Stores supplying other businesses could be considered essential, if they cater to essential businesses. The lines swiftly grew blurry. Cannabis stores in San Francisco, for example, were initially told to shut, and then on Tuesday the city allowed them to remain open.
All “nonessential” businesses were ordered to shut down by six Bay Area counties starting Tuesday until at least April 7, in the strictest measures taken in the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The Bay Area has half of the confirmed cases in California.
San Francisco’s Office of Small Business did not respond to The Chronicle’s questions, and a spokeswoman from the Office of Economic Development said it did not have information. Those offices themselves closed Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health, which issued the city order, referred questions to the economic development office.
Major retailers that sell food and essential household supplies have said they will continue operations, but some have cut hours.
Trader Joe’s began limiting store hours to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday. The company said it was making additional paid sick leave time available and had suspended in-store food sampling. (San Francisco requires employers to provide paid sick leave to all employees, including part-time and temporary workers, in the city.)
Target said last week it intends to keep its nearly 1,900 U.S. stores open, and an employee at a downtown San Francisco Target said the store was open Tuesday. Beginning Wednesday, Target will close all stores by 9 p.m. to allow more time for cleaning and restocking. It is also dedicating an hour every Wednesday morning to let vulnerable guests shop and offering 14 days of pay for workers who are quarantined and those diagnosed with coronavirus. Safeway is also blocking time on Tuesdays and Thursdays for at-risk people to shop.
Hardware stores are an essential business, and Rick Karp, president of Cole Hardware, said all seven stores remain open. However, three San Francisco stores — North Beach, downtown near Powell Street and South of Market — have reduced their hours.
“We feel a heavy responsibility for the community to be there for people,” he said. “We don’t expect it to be great business. We want to be here.”
Only around eight employees out of 130 have decided not to work so far and they’re mostly using paid vacation time, he said. Some staff may be shifted from stores near quiet downtown San Francisco to busier locations, he said.
“Our goal is to keep people employed fully,” he said.
HostWell, a cleaning and concierge service in San Francisco that works with Airbnb hosts, appears covered under the order as essential, since cleaning and janitorial services can operate. But customer demand is another question. Airbnb has made cancellation policies flexible, and travel generally has crashed.
Keith Freedman, owner of Hostwell, said he is not in a position to pay his employees while they shelter in place. He employs 12 workers, one full-time and 11 part-time. He’s helping them all apply for unemployment benefits and is asking them to sign up for shifts to cover what work there is. Two of his workers are older than 50 and have not offered to take shifts, he said.
“I’m worried about the financial viability of my business and how my workers are going to manage their needs,” Freedman, said. “We have bills and employees to pay. Without money coming in, it’s a little hard to do.”
Freedman is exploring ways to keep the business going, including applying for local and federal grants.
Other businesses got last-minute exemptions to remain operational — like arts and crafts store Michaels, which was judged essential for educational purposes. A manager at the store at Pinole Vista Shopping Center said the location reopened at noon Tuesday.
Some businesses deemed essential that are able to operate under the order are still choosing to shut — either because they don’t have customers or to protect the health of their employees if they don’t offer vital services.
Coffee shops can stay open for to-go and delivery only. But Philz Coffee announced Tuesday the chain would be closing temporarily and tracking the situation daily to see when it was safe to reopen. The company is still paying for scheduled shifts and maintaining benefits for employees. They company has waived shipping charges from March 20 to April 20 to send coffee to people at home.
“We know this is the right decision — the health of our communities is paramount,” CEO Jacob Jaber said in a statement.
Other chains like Peet’s Coffee have not totally shut — to the outcry of some workers. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Ricardo said in an email that “our priority is the well-being of our team members, guests, and the neighborhoods we serve,” and the company is “modifying our operations” to comply with the situation.
As of Tuesday opening time, the chain transitioned all coffee bars to to-go and mobile orders only. If a team member is diagnosed or if coffee bars have to close, the company will pay employees for two weeks and explore ways to support them beyond that time frame.
Anahita Cann, who works at a Peet’s in Campbell, said she told her manager she wasn’t comfortable coming to work because she lives with her parents in an at-risk population.
“I’m deciding not to for my health and family’s health, and take the financial fall,” Cann said. She worries whether she’ll be able to make her car payment and whether her parents will struggle financially if she can’t pitch in on the mortgage.
Shwanika Narayan, Mallory Moench and Roland Li are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @shwanika, @mallorymoench, @rolandlisf