Business

Some large retailers remain open, claiming to be ‘essential’ businesses

Many retailers selling discretionary products such as clothing, laptops and video games are temporarily closing stores after local officials issued stay-at-home orders in Harris and Fort Bend counties to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But several, including Academy Sports + Outdoors, Mattress Firm and Office Depot, say they are essential businesses and are keeping their stores open during the stay-at-home order, which started Wednesday morning and lasts through April 3.

The stay-at-home order requires that businesses in the two counties cease all activities except those defined as “essential” within the order, effectively closing many companies temporarily.

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Retailers that are exempt from the stay-at-home order include grocery, warehouse, furniture, big-box, liquor, convenience, hardware, auto supply, auto and bike repair stores. Gas stations, bodegas, farmers’ markets, laundromats and dry cleaners can also remain open.

Still, many retailers said they were confused as to which businesses were considered essential or not.

Harris County spokeswoman Mariana Navarro said retailers are advised to seek legal advice to see if they are considered essential businesses under the county’s stay-at-home order. Residents are urged to email stayhome@cjo.hctx.net if they feel a local business is not following the county’s order.

Case-by-case

Academy said it was considered an “essential” business because it is a big-box retailer. Although Academy stores and its distribution center remain open, the retailer is closing its corporate headquarters in Katy during the stay-at-home order. The company has more than 245 locations nationally.

Elise Hasbrook, a company spokeswoman, said many Houston-area residents are stocking up on recreational and fitness equipment, as well as emergency supplies, to pass time as they stay home. All of its stores have implemented “social distancing” measures, she added.

“Our stores provide people products they need to prepare for emergencies, from packaged food, water, lighting, cooking and fuel,” Hasbrook said. “We also provide things that people need to occupy themselves as they stay in their home for extended periods such as sports equipment and games, along with items that will help them keep fit such as exercise equipment and bikes. We are seeing people in many areas of our store shopping to help them weather this challenging time.”

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Mattress Firm said its stores are staffed with a single salesperson, and added its stores already have low traffic compared to other retailers and furniture stores, which allows for social distancing. In addition, the company said its employees are cleaning stores more frequently, and have asked staff not to come to work if they are not feeling well or feel uncomfortable working during the outbreak.

“We feel confident that sleep is an essential function of a home, especially during times of high stress and anxiety,” Mattress Firm Chief Executive John Eck said in a statement. “As people are spending more time at home or offering their home to relatives, they find themselves in need of mattresses, pillows or bed protectors as quickly as possible.

“Rest-assured health and safety remain our top priority,” Eck added.

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Office Depot said its stores remain open “as we provide essential products and services that help our customers manage their businesses, and work from home and learn from home.” The company, which also owns OfficeMax, is encouraging customers to shop online or via their mobile app, placing orders for curbside pickup.

“We also provide paper products, cleaning and janitorial supplies, shipping and printing services and other items in high demand during this unprecedented and challenging time,” Office Depot spokeswoman Sarah England said.

Dillard’s opened its Harris County department stores on Wednesday, saying “we believe continuing to operate using current safety standards is the best thing we can do long term for our associates and for the economy.” But after facing public pressure to close on social media, Dillard’s spokeswoman Julie Johnson Guymon said in an email Wednesday evening that its Houston-area stores would indeed comply and close its stores temporarily. The company has a dozen stores in the Houston area.

Other retailers, including Barnes & Noble, Michael’s and Igloo, are keeping some facilities open. They did not respond to requests for comment.

Several major retail companies, even those that are financially struggling, have temporarily closed stores in response to the coronavirus, which causes a respiratory illness called COVID-19, that has sickened more than 375,000 people and killed more than 16,000 people worldwide.

Apple, Nike, REI, Bed Bath & Beyond and GameStop have closed their doors to shoppers during the pandemic. Many small business owners also are closing their shops to the public during the stay-at-home order.

paul.takahashi@chron.com

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