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Hobby Lobby among non-essential businesses staying open while adhering to social distancing

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Though Gov. Roy Cooper’s recent executive orders outline which businesses can be considered essential, exceptions in the orders allow non-essential businesses to operate if they can maintain social distancing guidelines and other recommended safety precautions amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.

Hobby Lobby recently made such a case to justify reopening its location in Salisbury at 125 Tingle Drive No. 400. On Friday, Alicia Wiley, associate general counsel in the legal department at Hobby Lobby, sent an email to Rowan County Manager Aaron Church to inform officials that the Salisbury location would be open and begin operating on Monday.

In a letter from the North Carolina Department of Revenue, the state determined Hobby Lobby didn’t qualify as an essential business, but that the “business may continue to operate so long as it can operate in accordance” with social distancing requirements outlined in Executive Order No. 121. Those requirements, for both employees and customers, include maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from other individuals, washing hands using soap and water for at least 20 seconds as frequently as possible or the use of hand sanitizer, regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces and facilitating online or remote access by customers if possible.

In its email to the county, Wiley said Hobby Lobby believes it is an essential business because the company supplies materials to make personal protective equipment. That includes fabrics and elastic materials, “which are very important for healthcare operations,” she said.

She added that Hobby Lobby also provides educational and office supplies that are necessary during school closures and while many individuals are currently working from home.

In addition to the guidelines from both executive orders, Wiley said the Salisbury location would include exclusive operating hours for customers aged 60 or older or who belong to a high-risk group, place barriers between customers and cashiers and require employees to wear masks or cloth face coverings.

County Attorney Jay Dees said in a response the county doesn’t have the authority to tell Hobby Lobby whether they can or cannot operate because that is determined by state government. But the county will spot-check for compliance and respond accordingly.

Dees said the decision for non-essential businesses to open for full public access affects local resources because it requires people to be pulled away from other needs.

“Rowan County will now have to reallocate deputies or police officers away from other local needs and begin checking Hobby Lobby for compliance,” Dees said in an email to Wiley. “This additional strain on our already-stressed law enforcement resources from a non-essential business seems out of order at this critical time.”

Wiley did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday from Salisbury Post. And as of Tuesday morning, the Hobby Lobby in Salisbury remained closed, according to Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten.

Dees added that it’s difficult for everyone under these circumstances.

“People want to be open and no one wants to hurt financially,” he said in an interview with The Post.

The county also launched a reporting tool called to report violations of the governor’s stay-at-home order that can be found by clicking the COVID-19 banner on the county website at rowancountync.gov. Locals who encounter businesses that aren’t complying with social distancing requirements or are violating the governor’s order in another way can submit the form to file a complaint.

Rowan County Health Department spokesperson TJ Brown said the complaint comes to the county’s COVID-19 email address and the 911 director if needed. If the complaint requires action, it can be directed to local law enforcement, who can go to the business and enforce social distancing if it’s not being practiced.

Auten said Hobby Lobby is in the county’s jurisdiction, and if needed, the agency would draft criminal charges. But he said the store opening is lawful. So, social distancing and occupancy numbers would be the concerns.

Auten said the sheriff’s office would still follow up with any complaints, if any are received, and conduct spot checks at the store as well.

For about five of the complaints received from locals, Brown said, the health department has followed up with the business with an informative letter on complying with social distancing measures. Most of the complaints received have been about not meeting social distancing requirements and not maintaining an appropriate distance at cash registers.

Brown said the volume of complaints has decreased since the state has provided specific guidance on requirements in both executive orders.

Other reports that have been received, however, included opinions from locals about whether they feel certain businesses operating should be considered essential.

“We want all of our local businesses to survive and ultimately thrive as the executive orders allow more complete openings,” Dees said in his email to Wiley. “We just hope that by complying with these orders now, that date may be much sooner than if businesses push to open too quickly and do not comply.”

Shavonne Potts contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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