Although only “essential” businesses are supposed to remain open under stay-at-home orders now in effect in the Kansas City area, some businesses appear to have adopted a loose definition of the term.
The 700,000-square-foot Guitar Center distribution center in the Northland is one of them. The sprawling facility employs hundreds of people to fulfill online orders for musical instruments and musical gear.
“From your brief description, it sounds like they might not qualify as essential. We are asking people with concerns like this to call 311,” said Kansas City spokesman Chris Hernandez in an email responding to a KCUR query.
Less than a mile away from the Guitar Center facility, a Staples warehouse that’s nearly as large also remains open. And until yesterday, Nebraska Furniture Mart in Wyandotte County was also open for business.
After drawing criticism from some customers on the company’s Facebook page, the giant furniture retailer on Tuesday announced it would close its four stores starting Friday.
The Guitar Center facility, formerly known as Musician’s Friend, says it meets county guidelines defining an essential business, although it doesn’t say how. Staples did not respond to requests for comment.
Both the Guitar Center and Staples facilities are located in Clay County, which, like all six other metro counties and Kansas City, Missouri, has issued a stay-at-home edict in an effort to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
The Guitar Center distribution warehouse employs roughly 300 people in three shifts. At any given time, 100 or more work in the facility.
By contrast, Guitar Center’s retail outlets in the area – it operates stores in Kansas City, Independence and Overland Park – are closed.
Through its public relations firm, Chicago-based Edelman, Guitar Center said it has been following all local, state and federal government guidelines on closing stores and facilities.
“Clay County, where one of our direct-to-consumer fulfillment centers is located, meets the county guidelines of an essential business and remains open,” it said in an email, apparently meaning to refer to the distribution center.
Clay County, like Kansas City, has defined essential businesses to include, among others, health care operations, grocery stores, banks, hardware stores and businesses providing mailing and shipping services.
Kelsey Neth, a spokeswoman for the Clay County Public Health Center, said she was unaware the Guitar Center distribution center was open and questioned whether it was truly “essential” under the county’s definition of the term.
“The intent is that they are helping the really, really essential people,” Neth said of the county’s order. “So like health care and things like food supply and things like that. So my initial response would be no, but I also don't know the situation,” she said, referring to the Guitar Center facility.
She added that, because it’s also located in Kansas City, the city’s stay-at-home order takes precedence over the county’s.
Through Edelman, Guitar Center noted that its Kansas City distribution facility is highly automated, cleaned frequently and staffed in a way that maintains the six-foot social distancing requirement.
It also said Guitar Center was not requiring employees to work if they’re uncomfortable doing so.
“Associates may use available paid time off if they feel uncomfortable reporting for work and will not be penalized for attendance,” it said.
Meredith Schwenk, a spokeswoman for Staples, said the safety and security of its customers was its “first priority.”
She said Staples sells products “deemed essential to the health and safety of our customers and the general population, and as such operates within the 'Critical Infrastructure Sector' as designated by the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Government.”
“Our Supply Chain transports and delivers products that are essential to the viability of our hospitals, healthcare providers, government agencies, and remote workers including but not limited to, sanitizing products, paper towels, toilet paper, janitorial and sanitation cleaning supplies, other medical supplies, and foodservice items, as well as office products and technology items,” Schwenk said.
Nebraska Furniture Mart had argued it likewise provided essential goods that customers need in order to stay at home. But after The Kansas City Star published a story on Tuesday in which employees and customers criticized it for endangering public health, the company had a change of heart.
Both Kansas City’s and Clay County’s stay-at-home orders took effect after midnight on Tuesday.
As of Tuesday, the portion of Clay County outside Kansas City reported four confirmed coronavirus cases: a man and woman in their 50s, a woman in her 80s and a man in his 20s.
Kansas City had reported an additional 30 confirmed cases as of Wednesday.
“Unfortunately, COVID-19 continues to spread across the Kansas City metro area and Clay County is no exception” Clay County public health director Gary E. Zaborac said in a statement.
“At this time, we are asking everyone follow the shelter in place order to protect our families, friends, and neighbors and help to keep our health care facilities from being overwhelmed,” he said.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies