A state commission created to resolve disputes between businesses and local health departments during the coronavirus pandemic has ruled that discount retailer Gabe’s can remain open.
In a meeting and subsequent opinion released this week, the three-member Dispute Resolution Commission, which determines what an essential business is during the pandemic, determined Gabe’s is an essential business as long as it conforms to some requirements.
Both Summit County Public Health and the Portage County Health District ordered Gabe’s, formerly known as Gabriel Brothers, to close this month after determining it was nonessential, with one public health official saying the amount of essential supplies the store sells is "minimal."
But the company refused, arguing it was selling essential goods and offering consumers another shopping option during the pandemic.
The two county health agencies submitted a dispute resolution request on April 13, and attorney Blake Stephens submitted a request on behalf of Gabe’s on Monday.
Gabe’s said in its request that it sells both essential and nonessential products, with essential products including dry goods, pet supplies, nonalcoholic beverages, masks, gloves, disinfecting wipes, toilet paper, toothpaste, deodorant, medical items, cleaning supplies, bottled water and other personal hygiene products.
Gabe’s Senior Vice President of Marketing Leigh Guldig previously said stores are only receiving shipments of essential products.
The commission determined Gabe’s can be considered an essential business as long as its primary line of business is limited to the sale of essential products. If the sale of nonessential products becomes more than incidental for the business, it loses its essential status.
The commission’s decision is final.
"Gabe’s is committed to providing essential goods at affordable prices to all Ohioans," the retailer said in a prepared statement. "During these challenging times, the safety of our customers and associates remains our top priority. We will continue to follow the state’s recommended safety guidelines within our stores."
The store also has to meet public health guidelines to operate safely during the pandemic. Guldig and a law firm representing the retailer previously said stores are complying with social distancing guidelines and disinfecting locations.
According to the opinion, the health departments in Mahoning and Richland counties determined Gabe’s — which has 107 stores in multiple states, including 26 in Ohio — is an essential business.
"The health district stands by the decision of the commission and has not received any notification from Gabe’s on how they intend to meet the requirements," Summit County Public Health Environmental Health Director Tonia Burford said. "When and if the agency receives information, it will be reviewed to determine if it meets the intent of the ruling by the commission."
Becky Lehman, public information officer for the Portage County Health District, also acknowledged the commission’s decision. Earlier this month, the health district cited the Gabe’s store in Kent and ordered it to close.
"The commission finds that this business is essential and may continue to operate and maintain its essential lines of business and, to a limited extent, non-essential lines of business," she said. Conditions of the approval, she noted, include selling "essential" products and not using "incidental" products as their primary line of business.
"Therefore, Gabe’s may be considered an essential business provided that its primary line of business is limited to the sale of the essential goods listed in its request: dry goods, pet supplies, non-alcoholic beverages, masks, gloves, disinfecting wipes, toilet paper, toothpaste, deodorant, medical items, cleaning supplies, bottled water, and other personal hygiene products," Lehman said.
The commission was created as part of the state’s amended stay-at-home order. The members, appointed by Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton, include Ohio Development Services Agency Director Lydia Mihalik, Ohio Department of Commerce Director Sheryl Maxfield and Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chair Sam Randazzo.
Contact Beacon Journal reporter Emily Mills at firstname.lastname@example.org.