Define Essential: Are Mattresses Included?

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, questions arise about who can sell mattresses and furniture when most businesses are closed

Are mattresses essential items?

BILTRITE Furniture-Leather-Mattresses, an independent furniture retailer in Greenfield, Wisconsin, is among the retailers arguing that their stores should be allowed to operate under state and municipal stay-at-home orders that close all but “essential” businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Randi Komisar Schachter, one of the fourth-generation family members running BILTRITE, has been waging a public relations campaign to try to convince Wisconsin regulators that home furnishings and mattresses are essential items and that all stores selling them should be allowed to be open. In letters and emails to state officials, Schachter has pointed out what she believes is an unfair playing field, where big boxes and appliance stores that sell a wide variety of items continue to sell furniture and mattresses in Wisconsin while her store is forced to remain closed.

“It is all about health and wellness during a stay-at-home order and many people are in need of lift chairs, recliners and mattresses during times like this. We find it a disadvantage that our competitors, including furniture and big box stores who happen to sell appliances and hardware, which are deemed essential, are allowed to be open for those items and can sell furniture and mattresses in their stores when we are not allowed to,” Schachter wrote in an email to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. “We would like to be fully open and welcoming customers. That said, we are following — to the letter of the law — the guidelines that have been given to us by the state. What is unfair is that we are not playing on a level playing field. All stores should close that offer what we do, sell only essential items or the state should change that we are essential. How are liquor stores essential but we are not?”

BILTRITE’s campaign has netted the retailer coverage by local media, but thus far, Wisconsin has not shifted its stance, reiterating to BILTRITE that it is allowed under the state’s regulations the only items it is allowed to sell are lift chairs through delivery or curbside pickup. (The store is able to take orders for other items via phone for delivery. It does not have an e-commerce operation.)

BILTRITE’s arguments echo some of those made by the Home Furnishings Association and the American Home Furnishings Alliance, both based in High Point, North Carolina, which sent a joint letter to Vice President Mike Pence in early April arguing that home furnishings are essential items. The letter provides talking points retailers can use in dealing with state and local officials to make the case that home furnishings stores are essential businesses and to lobby that, if currently closed, home furnishings stores be among the first allowed to reopen as cities and states begin staged efforts to loosen restrictions on businesses.

States and municipalities have had widely divergent ways of handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have closed all but essential businesses, while a few others have let most businesses remain open if they follow certain social distancing and sanitation practices. Definitions of essential vary widely, as well.

For instance, Mattress Direct, a chain with nearly two dozen of stores across Louisiana and Arkansas, continues to operate under those states’ essential business guidelines, albeit with reduced hours and a host of new procedures for keeping employees and customers safe and healthy.

But Matthews Mattress, also a multistore sleep shop chain, has had to close its stores in and around Sacramento, California. A note on its website from owners Kevin and Kristin Matthews explains, “This is a temporary change. We are monitoring this situation closely so that we can provide the best service possible while meeting the needs of the community. The health and well-being of our customers, community, and our employees takes precedence.” The retailer operates an e-commerce site through which it can sell and make deliveries and also is able sell mattresses by appointment or over the phone.