The coronavirus pandemic is defining for the globe what's “essential” and what things we really can't do without, even though we might not need them for survival.
Attempting to slow the spread of the virus, authorities in many places are determining what shops and services can remain open. They're also restricting citizens from leaving their homes. Stay-at-home orders or guidance are affecting more than one-fifth of the world's population.
This has left many contemplating an existential question: What, really, is essential?
There's general agreement: Health care workers, law enforcement, utility workers, food production and communications are generally exempt from lockdowns.
But some lists of exempted activities reflect a national identity, or the efforts of lobbyists.
In some U.S. states, golf, guns and ganja have been ruled essential, raising eyebrows and – in the case of guns – a good deal of ire.
In many places, booze is also on the list of essentials. Britain at first kept liquor stores off its list of businesses allowed to remain open, but after reports of supermarkets running out of beer, wine and spirits, the government quickly added them.
“Recent events clearly demonstrate that the process of designating 'essential services' is as much about culture as any legal-political reality about what is necessary to keep society functioning,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, associate professor of history at Oregon State University.
Countries including India and U.S. states are listing the information technology sector as essential. The world's dependency on the internet has become even more apparent as countless people communicate, stream movies and play games online to stave off cabin fever.
Several states where marijuana is legal, such as California and Washington, deemed pot shops and workers in the market's supply chain essential. For some, the emphasis is on medicinal uses, not enabling cooped-up people to get stoned.
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont added gun shops to his list of essential businesses, generating shock and dismay among families of gun violence victims. His spokesman Max Reiss said Lamont is trying not to overly disrupt commerce or interfere with legal rights.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a legal opinion Friday saying emergency orders in his state can't restrict gun sales.
“If you have a breakdown in society, well then our first line to defend ourselves is ourselves, so I think having a weapon ... is very important for your personal safety,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told a radio interviewer.
There is a lot of variation across the U.S. because a national stay-at-home order has not been issued, said Benjamin Clark, associate professor of planning, public policy and management at the University of Oregon.
“We end up with places making up the rules that are culturally or geographically specific,” Clark said. “This is why we see so much variation, and potential risk.”
In Europe, the current epicenter of the pandemic, Italy has the most stringent rules, with only essential businesses such as food shops and pharmacies remaining open. The manufacturing sector was ordered shut down Thursday, though factories that make needed products like medical supplies will continue to operate after making conditions safer for employees.
Britain, which was initially reluctant to shut down business, has issued orders to close nonessential operations. Restaurants and eateries must be shut, but Britons can still get fish and chips and other meals, as long as they're carry-out.
In France, shops specializing in pastry, wine and cheese have been declared essential businesses.
In a nod to Israel's religious life, people can gather for outdoor prayers – with a maximum of 10 worshipers standing 6 feet apart. Demonstrations – also allowed – have occurred outside parliament and the Supreme Court, with participants maintaining social distance.
In the United States, lobbyists have been trying to influence what gets on lists of essential services, so their clients' businesses can remain open.
Despite their efforts, golf wasn't deemed essential in Connecticut. But Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey included golf courses on his list.
In California, construction executives and others lobbied state officials to get construction exempted from the stay-at-home mandate, the Sacramento Bee reported. State health officials responded by including all construction as essential.