How Shelter In Place Orders Impact Online Businesses and Marketplace Sellers

Yesterday, the Governor of California ordered a Shelter in Place Order for the entire state, impacting about 40 million residents and the 5th largest economy in the world.

Previously, only the greater San Francisco metro area with about 7 million people was the largest Shelter in Place Order given to date in the U.S.

Today, New York state followed with its version, placing another 19 million people under a similar mandate. Yet, New York Governor Cuomo does not want to call it a Shelter in Place Order.

Late this afternoon, Illinois became the third state with a Shelter in Place order, adding another 13 million people under such restrictions.

But reading through the restrictions, it almost seems New York State is under a more restrictive mandate than California. And the state-wide Shelter in Place Order in Illinois is another variant of the same name.

Throughout the country, there are various forms of curfews, closures of public areas, movement restrictions, and operational restrictions on private businesses.

Does it really matter that it is called Shelter in Place when there is no apparent uniformity to the regulations and restrictions? It doesn’t seem so, especially when previous uses of that term applied to active shooter, tornado, and hurricane events.

What Is a Shelter in Place Order Mean For COVID-19 Emergency?

At its core, a Shelter in Place Order or similar temporary government-ordered restriction is a mandate for citizens to stay home and only venture outside when necessary.

During this COVID-19 emergency, Shelter in Place Orders typically come with these exceptions:

  • Employees in critical positions may commute to work; all others stay home.
  • Individuals may shop for necessities such as food and medical supplies.
  • People can visit a doctor or medical facility, but there is a preference to avoid non-essential visits.
  • Individuals may run, walk, exercise outdoors as long as they keep a safe distance to others.
  • People can take care of friends and family that require special assistance.

Shelter in Place Orders because of the COVID-19 emergency generally prohibit:

  • Inside and outside gatherings of 10 people or more.
  • Leisure travel and unnecessary business travel.
  • Restaurants from opening their seating areas.
  • Operations of entertainment facilities, nightclubs, bars, etc.
  • Working at offices and warehouses and businesses that are not essential to daily life.

There are many holes and grey areas in the general description of a Shelter in Place Order and in the details provided by state and local governments.

Obviously, for every small business owner, his or her business is extremely important, and in the grand scheme of the economy, small businesses represent 99% of places where people work.

However, with social distancing the only real way to flatten the infection rate curve and minimize the impact of the COVID-19 virus, tough decisions are being made at all levels of government.

Therefore, it is essential to review the restrictions being imposed by local officials to make sure to follow their guidelines and adjust operational practices.

How are Online Business Impacted?

As ominous as they sound, Shelter in Place Orders are not Martial Law!

By themselves, they are not curfews either, unless a curfew component is added to the Shelter in Place Order.

It appears that a violation of a Shelter in Place Order most likely will only result in a warning, and in more blatant or severe cases, a fine.

On the other hand, curfews give most local law enforcement some options to criminalize a violation. That is the reason they are common after natural disasters to avoid looting and interference with first responders.

For sellers that operate from home, Shelter in Place Orders are easier to comply with, regardless of what they may sell.

Unfortunately, sellers who operate from an office or warehouse will need to carefully review restrictions imposed in their area to understand if they can continue operations with a skeleton staff.

However, to avoid problems and misunderstandings, even home businesses need to look at making some adjustments.

How to Handle Shipping?

Going to the post office or a retail location that accepts UPS, FedEx, or DHL packages may be problematic under some Shelter in Place Orders.

Therefore, sellers should rethink their shipping processes and try to move to daily or on-demand pickup services as offered by all carriers.

For example, sellers only need one USPS Priority Mail to be able to receive a free pick up from the postal service. UPS, FedEx, DHL offer on-demand pickups of packages on most service levels.

Many express shipments are picked up the same day, while ground shipments may require a day’s notice.

Because service levels may vary from zip code to zip code, sellers should check the service guide(s) of the carrier(s) how they handle pickup services.

There are so many ways to create labels online today, from carrier offered online label printing to third party shipping platforms; this should not be a problem to sort out.

Actually, some sellers may find new efficiencies and discounts on third-party shipping platforms that are not available otherwise.

As a general rule of thumb, the U.S. Postal Service allows sellers to schedule pickups in advance; it’s even possible to schedule a daily pickup for months in advance.

USPS pickups typically occur when mail is delivered. But in some areas, they may have a dedicated pickup driver.

Sellers that typically drop off packages should reach out to their regular mail carrier if they are changing to frequent pickups.

This way, the mail carrier knows about the change in a seller’s operation, and sellers may also be able to work out a “hidden spot” for the carrier to grab shipments when not available.

Yesterday, eBay announced it is protecting a merchant’s seller status during this time, providing some relief for those sellers that may not be able to get an item shipped out as they usually would or even if they have to cancel the shipment.

Other marketplaces are likely to follow to offer similar seller protections against delayed shipments.

Isn’t the U.S. Postal Service Always Open?

By law, “The United States Postal Service shall be operated as a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States, authorized by the Constitution, created by an Act of Congress, and supported by the people.”

USPS retail locations should continue to operate to maintain the required services but may restrict regular business hours.

UPS, FedEx, DHL are Essential Services

Along with the U.S. postal service, UPS, FedEx, and DHL are considered essential services by federal and state governments.

All levels of government are sensitive to the economic impact this COVID-19 emergency has on the economy and especially small businesses.

Similar to the USPS retail locations, there could be business hour restrictions on retail operations depending on local conditions.

But parcel and courier services are better at handling timely pickups as that is part of the daily routine for most drivers.

The U.S. Postal Service has improved significantly when it comes to pickup.

But it’s daily operational routine is different from courier services and once a carrier misses a pickup on mail delivery, they usually don’t come back.

What About Deliveries?

As already mentioned, the U.S. Postal Service is “a basic and fundamental service provided to the people by the Government of the United States.”

Sellers should expect occasional delays in shipments. But overall, the U.S. Postal Service is continuing operations as usual, including in areas under Shelter in Place Orders.

UPS and FedEx also do not appear to have significant service disruptions due to Shelter in Place Orders. However, both carriers have eased the requirement for signatures on deliveries across the United States.

DHL mostly handles international express for U.S. shippers, and delivery operations will vary on the destination country. Shippers should check each country before using DHL to get a better feel of what to expect when the shipment arrives.

The Future?

The COVID-19 emergency is so fluid and seems just to bring lousy news every day.

To reiterate, USPS, UPS, FedEx, DHL, and other transportation companies are essential services to the economy of the United States. Several companies today reiterated their essential service status.

Sellers need to be vigilant about shipping disruptions and stay in contact with buyers, especially if shipping internationally.

Everyone is painfully aware of the impact this COVID-19 emergency is having on businesses of all sizes, especially for small companies and solopreneurs.

While small businesses are more agile than larger corporations in making operational adjustments as circumstances warrant, this is an unprecedented emergency.

Too many unknowns that make it so difficult to predict what to do next.

Business needs to keep moving. But as a precautionary tale of what could happen, in Italy, the country’s postal service, UPS, FedEx, DHL, and other regional courier services had to suspend operations for a brief period.

This same could happen in the United States in “hotspot areas,” and sellers should prepare for the possibility.

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