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Amid the Pandemic, Building Material Suppliers Are Asking Themselves: Am I 'Essential?'

At a time when retail establishments are closing to help limit the spread of the coronavirus, building material suppliers are facing questions over whether they should do the same.

In Pennsylvania, Hamilton Building Supply decided to shut its cabinetry showroom in Newtown, PA, after that state's governor on March 14 urged all "non-essential" retail outlets in four counties to close. "It makes good sense to keep homeowners and kids out of our showroom," company president John Perna told me. "Right now we're just handling transactional business with our pro customers."

Gov. Tom Wolf's request didn't specifically exempt building material suppliers like Hamilton from the list. In contrast, when the city of Berkeley, CA, issued its own so-called "shelter in place" list on March 16, it specifically exempted firms providing services or work "necessary to the operations and maintenance of 'Essential Infrastructure,' including, but not limited to, ... construction of housing."

Berkeley-based Truitt & White said in a March 16 letter to customers that the city had asked it to remain open. "[O]ur understanding of the city's order is that our customers involved with 'construction of housing' are listed as essential as well," it wrote. "It is our intent to operate business as normal until otherwise instructed."

Berkeley's shelter in place decree was part of a dramatic effort across the San Francisco Bay area to limit COVID-19's spread. Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, the North American Retail Hardware Association (NRHA) noted the trend to shutter non-essential businesses. It issued a statement urging that hardware stores be exempted.

"While NRHA is fully in support of any steps public health officials may deem necessary to combat COVID-19, up to and including the temporary closure of non-essential retail operations, we also urge public officials to consider locally owned home improvement stores among those retail operations determined to be 'essential' and allow these business owners the option to stay open as a public service," said the NRHA statement. It was signed by the heads of NRHA and seven major hardware distributors.

"With nearly 35,000 independent home improvement retailers serving communities across North America, these stores provide much-needed services to individuals and contractors, providing them with the products and support required to keep their homes and communities safe, secure and functioning," NRHA's statement continued. "... In many communities, the local hardware store represents the only outlet where consumers have access to essential supplies for cleaning, disinfecting, maintaining or repairing their residences."

NRHA's president sent the letter to members and asked them to share it with public officials to help explain how essential hardware stores are.

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