It’s been nearly three weeks since Governor Gavin Newsom ordered all non-essential businesses to temporarily close their doors.
So what counts as essential? Grocery stores, gas stations and hospitals might come to mind.
But the lists of what’s essential can be confusing. California, for example, includes “animal agriculture workers.” That’s why Foxfield Riding School in Thousand Oaks is still offering horseback riding lessons to many of its clients.
“We consider ourselves agricultural. I mean do we have to have lessons? Probably not, but we do have over 100 horses that can’t just sit in stalls,” says horse trainer Shelly Postel.
There’s no federal or local mandate to prevent equestrian facilities from conducting business as usual. Foxfield is disinfecting equipment and limiting the number of people who can be on the property, but they continue to offer private lessons.
Postel says most kids who own or lease their own horses are still coming: “I think that’s more of like a ‘my kid has to ride, needs to ride, like we don’t want to stop’ sort of thing.”
Postel is one of four trainers on a given day at Foxfield. And there are more than 100 horses on the property that need to be fed, cleaned and exercised every day.
“You do the math. That’s a lot of horses to ride in one day,” she says.
Riding barns aren’t the only business to fall into this gray area. Gun stores and cannabis dispensaries are still operational. GameStop – a business that sells video games and gaming equipment – tried to argue that it was essential, because it also provides equipment that some people need to work at home. They have since closed their doors.
Gus Lira is another so-called essential employee. He’s a co-founder of JetOptions Private Jets. The price point for his smallest planes start around $2,300/hr. If you want a flight that goes across the country or seats up to a dozen passengers, the cost could triple.
When news of the pandemic first hit, he was staying busy.
“We had our regular clients flying, trying to get home, or trying to get family members home,” he says. “So business spiked tremendously in the past two weeks.”
Now the work has slowed down, but that hasn’t stopped them from offering their services. One client last week flew from New York so he could self-isolate in his home in San Jose.
“I don’t know of any of our vendors that would advise that they would completely close doors or shut down or cease operations. I don’t think we will do so. … You won’t see many charter companies that will cease operations,” Lira says.
California’s guidelines include aviation as an essential transportation service. That includes commercial and recreational planes, and all the support services to keep them running.
And Lira says his private jet company should be considered essential, because they can transport people who need essential surgery in another state.
But there are no rules stopping Lira from flying someone across the country for leisure. He says in the current landscape, he would turn down such a trip.
And Lira says he won’t accept a request from someone who has traveled out of the country in the last month, or who is showing any symptoms.
“We clean all aircraft before and after flights. That’s for everyone’s protections and for everyone’s peace of mind. We go above and beyond normal procedures,” he says.
Then there are some services you might consider essential, but are getting harder to find.
At first, Los Angeles County said “personal grooming” was essential. But then the City of Los Angeles said barbershops don’t count. And now, the county agrees.
Carlos Castillo, owner of the Century City-based barbershop The Shave Place, says his clients were upset when he was forced to close.
“We have a lot of people in business who travel. And no matter what, their business never stops, so they have to do phone interviews, look their best. So a lot of them were like, ‘Dude, what am I gonna do? Like how am I gonna do it?’ I’m like, ‘Well you’re just going to have to ride it out,’” he says.
Castillo says after a while, his business should be considered essential again. People with short hair can only put off a haircut for so long.
Some of Castillo’s competitors are still open in some capacity. Barbershops, after all, aren’t mentioned explicitly in the state guidelines. So the same restrictions don’t apply in all of LA’s neighboring counties.
For now, lots of businesses exist in a gray area. And if the guidelines don’t mention a business explicitly, there is no great way to find what counts as essential.
The California State Department, Los Angeles County and Orange County all declined to comment for this story.