With spring officially here, according to the calendar at least, florists and garden centers across the country would ordinarily be gearing up for their busy season. But with the advent of the global pandemic and the safety restrictions that are accompanying it, flower shops are among the numerous businesses, large and small, struggling because they fall in a “gray area” when it comes to making the list of services deemed essential by government officials.
The trickiness over the “essential” category stems from whether or not garden centers fall under “Food and Agriculture,” one of the sectors of business allowed to remain in operation under current Massachusetts guidelines.
Some flower shops, including ones in California and Pennsylvania, have been shut down by local authorities. In Boston and its neighborhoods, some florists, like Olympia Flower Store in the South End, have also closed their doors. But Richard O’Mara, owner of Cedar Grove Gardens in Dorchester, is, justifiably in his opinion, keeping his business operational.
“I was told by a couple of local growers from Littleton and Foxborough that if I had herbs and cold weather crops out in the yard, because of the nature of those things, I would most likely pass the criteria in a sense of it being a food product or agricultural product,” explained O’Mara. “Now, those are just opinions, of course. But if you look at the list of what’s allowed, I have some broader issues with it.”
Hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s, which are considered essential by the government, have large floral departments and nursery sections, a reality that comes across as unfair to O’Mara.
“They sell the very product that is my lifeline,” he said.
Even smaller stores like Lambert’s and Market Basket – food and produce stores that also sell flowers – are not restricted, O’Mara pointed out. “I think it puts the small guy at a disadvantage, to be honest with you. We’re the local small niche store that does most everything – we do what a pizza shop does; we make deliveries on a daily basis throughout the year. So does Amazon and UPS, and they’re all designated as essential. So there’s a discrepancy there that I think is a little unjustified...I feel as though I have the right to be open, with the [safety] restrictions.”
While Cedar Grove Gardens remains open, O’Mara said, he is taking “all sorts of precautions,” including limiting access to the inside of the store, making Lysol sanitary wipes available in the outdoor garden center, and offering curbside pickup and no-contact delivery.
“We’re operating on the basis that people can’t walk into the store. If they want something, we’ll come out and bring it to them in the parking lot. So we’re following all the guidelines in terms of maintaining social distancing and encouraging use of sanitary wipes and sanitizer. I’m satisfying all the criteria.”
In a further effort to minimize contact, his delivery drivers are wearing gloves and ringing people’s doorbells when dropping off floral orders, said O’Mara.Gourmet items sold in the store’s gift shop, such as Phillip’s chocolates, Effie’s cookies, and McCray’s caramels, are also available for delivery.
“We’re hoping people continue to use our services in terms of deliveries so we can maintain staffing levels, which have dropped considerably from 17 to just 8.”
In addition to cutting his workforce in half, the coronavirus has gutted much of Cedar Grove Gardens’ orders for events, O’Mara said. “All of the weddings have been cancelled or rescheduled or postponed to the fall. We do a fairly good-sized event business, so you’re talking about five figures there in terms of changes in our plan.”
“We’re encouraging people to consider sending flowers to family, friends, and loved ones that might be feeling a little blue about being locked in their homes and doing the stay-in-place order,” he said. “It’s been proven that plants and flowers – according to the Society of American Florists – have a beneficial effect on people’s psychological well-being.”