Ari Armstrong, Business/Economy, Coronavirus, Denver, Exclusives, Featured, Uncategorized

Armstrong: The mental gymnastics around what’s ‘essential’

Years before marijuana became legal in Colorado for medical purposes in 2000, I tried to convince my grandfather that someday the herb might be relegalized. He couldn’t believe it. He seemed shocked that I’d even suggest such a thing. To him, the nefarious drug obviously should be met with government guns or at least handcuffs.

Imagine what he’d have thought if I’d pulled out a crystal ball and said in a deep voice, “Not only will recreational marijuana be legal in Colorado, it will be deemed a critical industry by the state during a time when most other businesses are outlawed.” He might have wondered whether I needed a trip to the mental ward. But here we are.

You may recall what happened on March 23 in Denver. Mayor Michael Hancock issued a stay-at-home order effective the next day. Immediately multitudes in Denver and the surrounding areas swarmed liquor stores to stock up. Oopsie!

Within a couple of hours, Hancock changed the order. As a Denver media release summarizes, “Update! The Order . . . has been updated with the following changes: Liquor stores with extreme physical distancing in place will be exempt. All marijuana stores with extreme physical distancing in place will be exempt. All construction operations and projects will be exempt.”

Within a few days, Denver had issued over a dozen citations to other sorts of businesses for daring to stay open. Because some businesses are more equal than others. Denver even ordered an Appliance Factory store to vacate on April 2. The city stated, “The Order allows for ‘maintenance and repair of ordinary household and business appliances,’ not in-person retail sales.” Appliance stores can deliver new appliances but not sell them in-store.

So, according to the city of Denver, it is more “essential” that people are able to get their ganja and their booze than to replace their broken refrigerator or stove.

But of course these rules are not applied evenly. Home Depot is an “essential” business because it deals in construction. But Home Depot also sells stoves, so you can walk into a Denver Home Depot and shop for a stove (or a curtain rod or a nightlight), you just can’t go into an Appliance Factory. And I guess who cares if none of this makes any sense.

Denver also cited Hobby Lobby. The sometimes-hysterical (and anonymous) Citizen Press actually made a good point here: Hobby Lobby provides supplies useful for making cloth masks, which on April 3 Governor Jared Polis recommended that everyone wear in public. So, if you’re keeping score, marijuana is essential, whiskey is essential, stoves and refrigerators are essential depending on where you buy them, masks are universally recommended, but mask-making supplies are non-essential.

Here are some other essential businesses in Denver: Acupuncture, architects, convenience stores, dog walkers, flower delivery, and (some) tutoring. And law firms, of course. Let no one ever imagine that lawyers are anything other than absolutely essential. On the Verboten List are clothing stores (except for thrift stores, which are essential), furniture delivery, housecleaning services, pawn shops, gyms, and “learning and educational supply stores.” We wouldn’t want parents buying their kids educational materials while they’re trapped at home!

The state of Colorado also got into the game of deeming which businesses are essential and which are not. Attorney General Paul Weiser sent Hobby Lobby a nasty-gram stating, “As you have been previously notified, Hobby Lobby is not a ‘critical business.’ You are directed to immediately close all Hobby Lobby locations within the State of Colorado.” No knitting or sewing supplies for you! A least all those crafters can still drive by the shuttered Hobby Lobby on their way to the liquor store. Some hobbies have favored government status.

Colorado also limited marijuana in-store sales to medical marijuana with curbside delivery for everything else. Wouldn’t curbside delivery work for craft supplies too?

My point here is not that government has no role to play in limiting social contact during this global pandemic. Even the most die-hard conservatives think government properly plays some role in stopping the spread of disease, as by checking people’s health at the borders. Ironically, the federal government largely got us into this mess by totally flubbing the rollout of testing, making the test-and-isolate strategy impossible for the time being, so now the task falls on state and regional governments to try to use the blunt-force tool of partial economic shutdowns to slow the virus.

However, I do think we should bear a few things in mind. The government agents charged with enforcing the shutdowns never once had to consider whether their jobs would be considered “essential.” Of course the journalists covering this mess are “essential.” And, again, the lawyers! Always, unquestionably, essential! We now live in a two-class world: Those the government deems essential, and those the government deems non-essential and hence prohibited from earning a living.

We can grant that a partial shut-down was warranted while observing that the way governments have rolled out shut-downs has been arbitrary and often cruel.

Perhaps, if nothing else, the shutdowns will prompt more people to reflect on the fact that, ultimately, at least some “non-essentials” such as art and hobbies—the particulars vary by individual—turn out to be essential to what life is all about.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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