What happens when local governments go too far when determining what IS and what ISN’T “essential” during the coronavirus crisis? What if, rather than just ordering businesses offering “nonessential” services to close, they decided what you were ALLOWED to buy?
That’s exactly what’s happening in Howard County, Indiana. Starting on March 28th, the County barred even essential businesses that have remained open from selling nonessential items.
What’s on the List besides books?
The list of purchases prohibited by the County Ordinance is actually pretty extensive and includes a number of everyday items.
- Entertainment electronics, including video games consoles, and accessories
- Toys and games for any age group
- Crafts and art supplies
- Home or lawn decor
- Non-emergency home appliances
- Rugs, carpets, or flooring
- Books and magazines
Why Did Howard County Change What Essential Businesses Could Sell?
According to the Board of Commissioners, since the original ordinance allowing only businesses providing essential products/services to stay open:
“…there have been numerous reports and complaints concerning businesses … that both essential goods as well as goods that are deemed nonessential. The complaints have come from businesses that have been closed that sell all or mostly nonessential goods who see customers purchasing nonessential items from stores…that are open for business. This is not fair to businesses that have closed in compliance to the County’s order.”
In addition to the issue of fairness, the Commissioners mentioned another problem — people coming to stores out of sheer boredom. After being cooped up while sheltering at home, customers would come in just to browse, often for nonessential items.
The longer lines, breakdown of social distancing rules, and impulse shopping were “obviously not in keeping” with health officials’ recommendations.
According to Howard County’s Facebook page, the reaction from residents has been overwhelmingly negative.
“This is a bunch of BS. I feel for the parents home with their children trying to homeschool them and they can’t buy books, puzzles, and arts and craft supplies?”
“…it cripples families abiding by the “stay at home” decree. Parents are not allowed to purchase items to entertain their children properly or participate in constructive activities with the copious amounts of time that families currently have.”
“So in a time of quarantine, I can’t buy books, magazines or crafts to keep me occupied?
“According to this, I can’t even buy the stuff I need to work on projects at my house that will keep me home.”
Can Governments REALLY Block Sales of Things Like Video Games, Books, and Furniture?
Because they are ostensibly prohibiting these items for the express purpose of protecting public health, the answer is “YES”. Howard County officials, like all governments, are allowed broader powers when a state emergency has been declared. This is why they can establish curfews, shut down businesses, and if necessary, declare martial law.
As for banning the sale of specific items, there is a precedent for that — “Blue Laws”. These are ordinances that ban certain activities or restrict specific kinds of sales on Sundays.
Blue laws were originally put in place for religious reasons, to promote Sunday as a day of rest or worship. Later, they gained support from secular sources like trade associations and labor unions. Like the Howard County Law, some states prohibited such sales as clothing, furniture, electronics, or toys.
Although most Blue Laws in the United States have been repealed, vestiges still exist. For example, many states still prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sundays.
The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of Blue Laws on several occasions.
The Bottom Line
So far, the U.S. hasn’t seen widespread implementation of similar policies elsewhere in the country. Most communities are simply releasing public advisories and issuing coronavirus guidelines similar to those put out by the Federal government.
Howard County officials have perhaps overreacted in this case, while trying to err on the side of caution. This could have been accomplished without making already-anxious residents feel as if they are being controlled by Big Brother. Lines could be avoided if stores offered home delivery or curbside pickup, for example.
In times of stress, people need positive outlets for their fear and frustration. Games, books, music, and home projects are all harmless ways for people to keep themselves occupied at home. It should be encouraged, not prohibited.