May 13, 2020

Businesses around the U.S. are reopening in defiance of state shutdown orders and federal health guidelines, highlighting what has emerged as the partisan-tinged tension between containing the coronavirus and unlocking the American economy.

Tesla founder Elon Musk this week practically dared local authorities to arrest him after reopening the company's factory in Fremont, California. The move — which drew praise from President Donald Trump — violated orders from the Alameda County Public Health Department, which had classified the plant as a non-essential business that could not fully operate under restrictions intended to combat COVID-19.

In Michigan, the Capri Drive-In Theater in Coldwater is planning to kick off its summer season on Friday despite a state order barring theaters from reopening on May 28. In Texas, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Ted Cruz are among the Republican notables who have recently patronized a hair salon in Dallas to show solidarity with its owner after she was jailed for refusing to keep her non-essential business closed.

State health officials in Castle Rock, Colorado on Monday also closed a restaurant that had opened for full service on Mother's Day in defiance of state rules banning in-person dining. A video posted by Colorado Community Media showed people without face masks sitting at tables and waiting close together in line at the counter, while others waited outside to get into the eatery about 30 miles south of Denver.

For some businesses, the decision about when to reopen is complicated by the mixed messages they're receiving from cities and states. In Texas, for instance, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued an order requiring that restaurant and food preparation workers wear masks. But Texas Governor Greg Abbott's "Open Texas" plan does not explicitly require restaurant workers to cover their faces on the job. 

The differing edicts came into play in Dallas, where the Hillstone Restaurant Group recently told workers that they shouldn't wear a facial covering of any kind, as it didn't comport with the company's idea of style and hospitality. One staffer was stricken from the schedule after expressing discomfort at the idea of working without a mask, the employee told CBS Dallas.

"Terrifying" Choice

If businesses face a hard choice over when and how to reopen, for workers the decision can be one of life and death. 

Terrie Neider, a 64-year-old with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, told the Washington Post that she is frightened to return to her part-time cashier's job at a Casey's General Store in Lone Tree, Iowa, but is going back because she urgently needs the money. "I just don't understand this position we are being put in now," she told the newspaper.
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In Utah, two unidentified businesses told employees to show up, even if they had a confirmed case of COVID-19. The flouting of public health guidelines resulted in 68 positive cases, with nearly half of the workers at one of the businesses — which local authorities didn't identify by name — according to a statement from county commissioners and mayors. 
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Yet returning to work even as the pandemic continues may seem like the only viable option, especially for those living paycheck to paycheck. 

"It's a horrible choice, but a very real choice that so many people are confronting," said Shaylyn Cochran, an employment lawyer and partner at Cohen Milstein.

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