MANSFIELD -- As temperatures rise and birdsongs begin to fill the morning air, workers in the lawn care and garden industry are wondering what spring will hold.
“It’s just scary. This is the time of year when our type of industry really starts making the money that we survive on for the whole year,” said Josh Maurer, one of the managers at Alta Florist & Greenhouse.
Spring is busy season for the landscapers and growers, but social distancing guidelines and a recently renewed stay-at-home order have changed the way these companies do business.
For Jon Stierhoff, of Rex’s Landscaping and Construction, doing business during COVID-19 now means daily temperature checks for each employee, only allowing one (or at a maximum, two) employees per truck and lots more hand washing and cleaning the equipment.
“We’re not paranoid but were cautious,” said Stierhoff, the company’s director of operations. “We’re sanitizing and cleaning like crazy, on the daily.”
While he expects business to be slower than normal, an extended closure doesn’t seem like a viable option.
“This is the time of year when we count on cash flow,” he said. “We have to do work.”
Cory Roth, owner of Affordable Lawn Care, will be implementing similar practices when he re-opens on Monday.
After the first stay-at-home order on March 22, it remained unclear whether or not lawn care businesses were considered “essential.”
Some lawn care companies chose to stay open, reasoning that maintenance operations are considered “essential” in the stay-at-home order. Roth chose to play it safe and close his business for two weeks.
“No one can give me a straight answer it seems like,” he said earlier this week. “One person will tell me I’m not (allowed to be open), another will tell me one guy per truck.”
Stierfhoff chose to remain open, citing the Department of Homeland Security, which lists landscapers as essential public works and infrastructure support workers. He also noted that employees have little, if any, face-to-face contact with clients.
In an email to Richland Source on Thursday, Richland Public Health Commissioner Sarah Humphrey said she sought guidance from the Ohio Department of Health, but state authorities have left interpretation and enforcement of the order largely up to county health departments.
"This has been a difficult industry to navigate," Humphrey said. "I have had a number of conversations with fellow health commissioners to ensure that all perspectives are being considered as it easily identified that there is a difference between maintenance and beautification.
"Until further guidance is provided by ODH, it is Richland Public Health's determination that lawn care business will be considered 'essential.' "
Humphrey added that, like all essential business, lawn care companies should follow proper safety health and safety measures while in operation, including social distancing, not allowing sick employees to report to work and making sure employees practice proper hygiene.
"We also highly encourage lawn care business to not to conduct commercial/residential beautification operations but adhere to maintenance activities only," Humphrey added.
Lawn care workers aren’t the only ones practicing social distancing. Alta has expanded its checkout counter so that personnel and customers stand at least six feet away.
Parts of the greenhouse have been roped off and are now “employee only” sections. Hours have been reduced and the greenhouse is operating with a limited staff.
The greenhouse has also innovated, adding no-contact pickup services for customers.
“People are adapting to it slowly, but in our industry people want to see what they’re buying. It’s a very visual type of industry,” Maurer said. “Hopefully the buying local is still the focal point for everyone.”
Maurer expects to see higher-than-normal sales of herbs and vegetables, but he’s bracing himself for a loss in seasonal flowers.
“In our industry things are timed. This time of year with spring and Easter, it’s a lot of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths,” he said. “In the 75 percentile we will probably lose that crop ... By June they’ll be done blooming and that flower’s lost.”
Although the grass may be greener on the other side of COVID-19, Maurer sees frustration as futile.
“There’s nothing that you can be mad over. This isn’t something that there was any control over,” he said. “It’s something that we just have to adapt to and overcome.”
Stierhoff had a similar outlook.
“We've seen good and bad before, that's just kind of how it goes,” he said. “I really do think the economy and things will turn as quickly good as it went south.”