What does “essential” mean?

It’s a question everyone needs to ask after Gov. Tom Wolf’s announcement Monday that essential businesses in Pennsylvania need to close in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We strongly urge nonessential businesses across the commonwealth to do their part by temporarily closing as we work to flatten the curve and protect the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians,” Secretary of Community and Economic Development Dennis Davin said in a statement released by the governor’s office.

Of course, there are businesses that the state sees as essential. Health care is at the top of that list. The tech services that make all the remote work being done possible. Grocery stores and gas stations. Banking and trash collection and agriculture.

That makes sense. If our world is a machine — like a car — then to keep it on the road, we need the absolute basics. The tires, the engine, the transmission, the brakes.

But we shouldn’t think of our entire workforce in terms of “essential” and “nonessential.” We are about to see in stark terms exactly how necessary those less-urgently-necessary jobs are — both for the people who do them and the people who depend upon them.

Within days, we will all probably be desperate for a pizza at our favorite local joint. A beer with friends. A movie with someone special. A concert so loud and crowded we feel the music more than we hear it.

We will have stocked our homes with enough pasta and canned goods to last weeks, but will hunger to take our kids to the Carnegie Science Center. PNC Park may have a lot of empty seats over a normal summer, but as we approach what should be baseball season, people will start to think wistfully of ballpark hot dogs.

No one has a nonessential job because our lives aren’t just about essentials. We need more than food, water, clothing and shelter. We need chipped ham and the Steelers and the morning paper and an evening glass of wine and birthday parties and holidays and other people to share it all.

And that’s reflected in our economy. Closing businesses will hurt us all — not just the businesses locking their doors. It means that people who can’t pay their bills won’t pay their bills, which affects people in a domino chain that shows how essential all those nonessential businesses are.

It isn’t going to be easy to just go with the stripped-down chassis of either our economy or our day-to-day lives. But it isn’t being done lightly or because it’s easy to strip out our morning coffee shop stop or cheering on the Penguins at a neighborhood sports bar.

“We understand that businesses are an economic driver throughout Pennsylvania, and a temporary closure will be a financial and community disruptor. DCED is committed to working with the business community to provide helpful resources for financial assistance,” said Davin.

It’s because the most essential part of our world and our economy are our people. We have to protect each other.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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