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Kansas City Now Deems Guitar Center ‘Essential’ And Allows It To Reopen

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Jodi Fortino
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KCUR 89.3
About 300 employees work in three shifts at Guitar Center's distribution warehouse at 4001 North Norfleet Road in Kansas City, Missouri.

City officials said the distribution center provided assurances that it will keep workers safe, but some employees remain doubtful.

Less than two weeks after ordering Guitar Center to shut down, Kansas City health officials have given it a green light to reopen its massive distribution center in the Northland.

City officials say the online fulfillment center has taken steps to protect its workers and is now deemed an “essential” business that can stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Guitar Center Distribution Center changed its internal policies for the way it will conduct its business during the StayHomeKC order," Naser Jouhari, division manager of the Kansas City Health Department’s Environmental Health Services division, told KCUR in an email.

Jouhari said company representatives had submitted a detailed letter confirming the changes for the department’s review and approval.

“The original complaints filed against this business were from employees that felt they were not being protected and were being forced to come to work,” Jouhari said. “These new policy changes will accommodate employee concerns and give them the opportunity to decide to report to work.”

Several Guitar Center employees who reached out to KCUR, however, said it was impossible for the center to ensure their safety because the center’s aisles, hallways and trailers don’t allow them to maintain proper social distancing measures. They said they were concerned about bringing the coronavirus home to their families.

In a statement, Guitar Center said it was pleased that the city had allowed it to reopen.

“We appreciate the involvement of the Mayor’s Office in recognizing the facility’s role in providing supplies to educational institutions, instructors and students, as well as providing all musicians with a source of products delivered directly to their homes,” the company said in an email.

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Jodi Fortino
Guitar Center's distribution warehouse in Kansas City is about 700,000 square feet.

“Our operations allow us to further musical education with our online lessons programs and support customers who depend on their music for income, self-expression and solace.”

It added that worker safety was its “top priority.”

The 700,000-square-foot center, which fulfills online orders for musical instruments and musical gear, employs about 300 workers in three shifts. The center is separate from Guitar Center retail stores, which have closed.

After Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas issued a stay-at-home order that took effect on March 23, the center — which is in the Clay County portion of the city — said it met Clay County guidelines for an essential business and stayed open.

But on April 9, it closed its doors after Kansas City code enforcement personnel, accompanied by Kansas City police, showed up to enforce the mayor’s order. Bill Snook, a city spokesman, said at the time that the center had received two previous warnings from the city.

The city’s decision to allow the facility to reopen comes as local and state governments grapple with the question of what constitutes an essential business and what doesn’t. The answer is often in the eye of the beholder.

For musicians who depend for their livelihoods on the ready availability of musical instruments and gear, the Guitar Center might seem essential. For the employees who work there and are fearful of contracting COVID-19 and transmitting it to their families, it might not.

In the Kansas City area, several businesses employing large numbers of people have drawn widespread criticism for staying open local despite stay-at-home orders. They’ve included Nebraska Furniture Mart, which ultimately closed in the face of the criticism, and some Hobby Lobby stores.

Michael Blumenthal, a Kansas City business lawyer who represents management, said the mayor ultimately determines what's essential "and then you as a lawyer are left to look at that order and make a determination as to whether the client's business fits within the definition."

"It's really in the eye of the beholder, which in this case is the executive, that being the mayor," Blumenthal said.

Jeff Donoho, a Kansas City commercial and business lawyer, said that the Guitar Center case "demonstrates, first of all, how difficult a task it is to start deciding what is an essential versus nonessential operation, especially in an economy as complex as the one that we live in."

While it’s up to individual localities and states to decide what is essential and what isn’t, businesses generally deemed to be essential include those involved in health care, food production and delivery, medical supplies, public utilities, communications and information technology, grocery stores and gas stations. Some governments have adopted the 16 critical infrastructure sectors announced last month by the federal government.

“There’s just so much gray area,” said Kelsey Noth, a spokeswoman for the Clay County Health Center. “And so, ultimately, we have to look at what our goal is, and our goal is to protect employees and protect the people in our jurisdiction. And in Kansas City’s case, if they feel confident that Guitar Center is doing what it takes to protect their people and have given them the go-ahead, then we have to trust their decision.”

Guitar Center notified Missouri economic officials on April 17 that it was closing and had furloughed 291 employees, effective April 10. That would have qualified those employees for unemployment insurance. Now that Guitar Center has reopened, those employees would not be eligible for unemployment insurance.

The company, however, assured city officials that employees who are uncomfortable reporting to work will not be penalized and could take advantage of extended pay through Guitar Center’s furlough program.

It’s not clear how long the extended pay would last. Guitar Center previously said that employees who were uncomfortable going to work because of COVID-19 could use their available paid time off.

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