As business owners work to understand parameters of new local and state COVID-19 regulations regarding business closures, some floral industry businesses have found ways to successfully advocate for exemptions that allow them to keep limited aspects of their business operational.
The big takeaways from their stories: Industry partnerships and cross-segment collaboration are critical, clear communication about safety measures and the value that flowers and floral businesses bring to communities is paramount — and finding an advocate inside the government is key.
Finding A Path
After Governor Tom Wolf ordered all “non-life-sustaining businesses” in Pennsylvania to close their physical locations on March 19, Rob Dillon of Dillon Floral assumed the wholesaler had no choice but to batten the hatches and start offloading product.
“We had just started throwing out our flower inventory when we learned there was a process to apply to the governor’s office for a waiver,” explained Dillon, president of the company. “We stopped throwing the flowers out and followed the [waiver request] procedure” outlined on a state website.
In the application, Dillon made the case that the wholesaler plays a “critical role in the manufacture and supply of goods and services necessary to sustain life,” citing SAF research on the emotional impact of flowers and explaining preventive safety measures already in place.
“People need flowers now more than ever,” he wrote. “The delivery of flowers is just like UPS. The flowers are placed on the porch or outside the nursing home for people to pick up without human contact.”
By March 23, Dillon’s waiver was approved, and the company had turned its attention to helping its retail customers find answers — including how and even if they could still operate certain services.
A Patchwork of New Policies
Dillon’s customers weren’t alone in their confusion. Across the country, the COVID-19 crisis has created a patchwork of new and sometimes contradictory rules, regulations and terminology to govern individual and business behavior: essential vs. nonessential vs. non-life-sustaining businesses; stay-at-home versus shelter in place orders. Definitions vary between states and municipalities, meaning floral industry business owners have been left to try and figure out what they are allowed to do, safely, while trying to protect and save their businesses.
In several cases shared with the Society of American Florists, industry collaboration across segments has helped floral professionals find clarity on their next moves.
After securing his company’s waiver, for example, Dillon reached back out to a state representative, David Millard, for more information on behalf of retailers. Through that channel, Dillon confirmed that, as of late March, Pennsylvania florists can continue to “take orders and deliver with no human contact” even though they “may not maintain a physical location”— a message the wholesaler shared with retailers in a March 30 note.
In that note, Dillon reminded retailers that “it is up to you to determine what this means for your shop. I believe it means that you can operate if your doors are closed to walk-ins (no physical location) and you take your orders electronically (via Internet or phone) and you make your deliveries with the required social distancing (no human contact).”
Even with that direct line to decision makers, the terrain can shift quickly, Dillon cautioned, noting that the waiver application process itself had changed three times in two weeks, and that at least one customer had been told by a representative in the governor’s office that telephone sales would not fall under e-commerce definitions. (SAF has so far not been able to confirm that definition with the governor’s office.)
“This is changing every day,” he said.
A Time for Collective Action
The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 crisis and the fast-changing landscape have compelled some companies to take group action. That was the case in Plymouth, Minnesota, where Patrick Busch of Len Busch Roses helped galvanize 200 floral industry members who convinced the governor to allow florists to continue select services, including online sales and floral deliveries.
Governor Tim Walz issued an executive order on March 20 that included florists on its list of “non-essential” businesses. Busch, seeing the devastation the order would cause to his own business and his customers’, moved quickly, reaching out State Representative Ginny Klevorn for help petitioning the governor. The longtime grower was prepared to make a strong case: In communications with Klevorn’s staff, he emphasized the economic importance of the floral industry to the state, the emotional impact of flowers (as proven by SAF research), and the perishable nature of the product (i.e. Busch had the inventory ready to go, and couldn’t store it, but he needed other industry segments help to get it safely to the public.)
Klevorn turned out to be a strong advocate (and flower lover) herself. She began working with other lawmakers and the state’s commissioner of agriculture to persuade the governor that florists deserved the exemption. To bolster her efforts, Busch put out a call to his customers and other floral professionals in the state, asking them to adapt and sign a letter, “A Plea from the Minnesota Floral Community.” The letter detailed many of the factors Busch had pointed to in his initial outreach, but it also underscored florists’ ability to deliver flowers in compliance with social distancing measures and the important role florists play as small businesses in local communities.
By March 26, Busch had collected 200 letters for Klevorn to share. The next day, the governor’s office issued the exemption.
“In retrospect, this is going to sound like we had a grand plan — but we didn’t,” Busch said. “This all happened so fast, so, in many ways, it felt like we had to start out in the dark and just keep moving.”
Finding any ally in Klevorn proved to be the game-changer, he admitted, adding that the representative had to overcome multiple administrative hurdles before the final exemption was made.
“She really carried the torch for us,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without her support.”
Mary Westbrook is the editor in chief of Floral Management.