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What's an essential business? It can be tough to tell

One business forced to close in Pennsylvania is considered "essential" in Ohio and allowed to continue to operate.
The AGC Residential Fabrication - Boardman Plant is on McClurg Road in Boardman.

BOARDMAN — The state on Wednesday again declined to name specific industries or businesses considered "essential" which may continue to operate under the state's stay-at-home order, which took effect Monday.

When asked by reporters to further define the state order — presenting specific instances facing scrutiny from Ohioans — Lt. Gov. Jon Husted deferred, saying, "Simply read the order ... use your own good judgment."

He said, however, businesses that decide to stay open should be prepared to justify their essential role to health officials, law enforcement or employees.

"If you're violating this, you will get called on it, either by a competitor, a neighbor — somebody will call you out," Husted said.

But the order issued Sunday gives broad definitions of "essential businesses and operations," including "businesses that sell, manufacture or supply other essential businesses and operations with the support or materials necessary to operate."

Under Husted's guidance, companies may self-determine whether they're essential, leaving their decisions open to objection from employees and their families — though state and local officials have asked people to not tie up law enforcement and health departments with inquiries.

Some have turned to the media for transparency. A concerned reader wrote to Mahoning Matters concerned that a family member's workplace, AGC Residential Fabrication in Boardman wasn't essential and wasn't taking steps "to ensure the well being of [its] employees." They noted:

• Employers work in close proximity to each other.
• Their "essential construction" was for glass parts for windows.
• The company closed a similar operation in Quakertown, Pa., though its Boardman location remains open.

But Chris Correnti, general counsel for AGC/North America, told Mahoning Matters that the company was taking measures "to minimize risk" at the Boardman plant though he declined to go into detail.

He said the decision to keep the Boardman plant open while closing the Quakertown plant came down to the differences between Ohio's and Pennsylvania's mandates.

"The decision begins with the wording of the executive order," Correnti said, noting under Ohio's order, the Boardman plant "will fall under allowed essential businesses."

In fact, one of the Ohio allowances was for the production of "flat glass."

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's order reads "No person or entity shall operate a place of business in the Commonwealth that is not a life-sustaining business ..." Specifically prohibited from operating are "glass and glass product manufacturing."

"We have business and customer needs and we are going to continue to operate at this point," Correnti said, noting there are "customer and market demands."

He declined to go into detail on the plant's specific supply chain or whether production had been modified to produce emergency items sought in the pandemic.

Correnti said business needs, as well as issues of risk, are "factors [that] go into the decision as what do or not to do" in terms of each plant's operation. That matrix also includes whether the company would "suffer some adverse consequence" from government, he said.

During the state's briefings, Husted has repeatedly drawn attention to section 18 of the Ohio Department of Health order, which requires essential businesses to maintain a safe and healthy work environment in several ways, including: allowing as many employees as possible to work from home; encouraging sick employees to stay home; and enhancing sanitization of common touch points.

Correnti also noted Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's request for employers to measure their employees' temperatures daily was just a request, not a mandate.

"It wasn't a health mandate," Correnti said. "We chose not to take temperatures at that location," because of the complications it would cause.

"We always encourage people to talk to their managers, talk to [human resource managers], talk to leadership of their plant to get answers to their questions," he added.

The message coming from DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton during the state's daily coronavirus updates has been consistent: every Ohioan has to do their part to slow the virus' spread.

"We would not have issued this [order] if it wasn't a matter of life or death," DeWine said Monday. "It's with great reluctance that any governor would make an order such as this."

— Reporter Justin Dennis contributed to this story

Read the full Ohio Department of Health order below: