Gov. Charlie Baker’s order last week shuttering most non-emergency operations in the Bay State as a way to further slow the spread of the coronavirus had many residents and business owners asking themselves the same question:

“Am I essential?”

The short answer: Yes. We all are.

Baker’s order, which went into effect at noon Tuesday of last week, requires all non-essential businesses to close their facilities to customers and the public. That means no trips to the barber shop, the bookstore or the dry cleaner.

You can still, however, go to the bank, or the grocery store, or the pharmacy. And you can still get takeout or delivery for dinner from those restaurants still hanging on in this, the second week of a near-total shutdown. You can still call your financial adviser and try to rescue your plummeting 401(k). Even the packie on the corner is still open.

While there was much fuss on Beacon Hill recently on whether the governor should follow the lead of his counterparts in places like New York and California and hand down the “stay-at-home” order, the truth is it changes very little on the ground. Most of us had already been staying inside, or at least away from other people. Stores across the region, including malls and movie theaters, had already shut down, out of a sense of duty or a realization that no one was showing up anyway.

What Baker’s order did, however, was further bring into focus the realization many of us have come to over the past few weeks: The list of “essential” workers is a lot longer than we used to think it is, and it includes a bunch of people we look past in calmer times. And all of us are essential in ways we never would have thought of even a month ago.

We’re thinking not of the first responders, doctors and health professionals who are now risking their own health to test and treat those affected by COVID-19. They would sit at the top of anyone’s list.

But when was the last time we looked at a Market Basket stock boy and thought “that kid is essential to my daily life”? Someone is working overnight restocking every grocery store in the country, preparing for the morning’s wave of panicked shoppers. And it’s not the CEOs. The pizza chef, cashier and delivery driver are still on duty. So is the guy who helps you pump your gas, or find the beer you like in the cooler in the back. Your mail is still being delivered, and so is the print edition of this newspaper.

“Essential” workers all, and essential all along.

Meanwhile, those forced to stay home are finding their own ways to help. Musicians are playing free live concerts on Facebook. Chefs are offering cooking demonstrations and storytellers, authors and poets are reading to children. Teachers who thought Zoom was a verb and not a meeting tool are holding classes for holed-up kids. They are essential to our collective sanity.

Your old home-ec teacher from back in high school? Turns out she’s essential too, as dozens of impromptu sewing circles have cropped up in recent days aimed at making protective masks for local hospitals. A lot of people are using thread-and-needle skills they haven’t called upon in years.

“I know homeschooling moms who are sewing these with their kids,” Rockport seamstress Jennifer Cunha said recently. “A neighbor who owns a store is sewing them. It’s kind of amazing how everybody wants to help out our medical personnel and first responders. I’ve had people offer me money for supplies and offers to go try to find supplies.”

A friend, Laurie Twombly, went to Ace Hardware (still essential, still open) and spent $100 of her own money to buy Hoover vacuum bags to convert into mask filters.

Speaking of masks, the conservators at the Peabody Essex Museum unearthed a pallet of N95 masks and other protective gear from its collections management department and promptly shipped it over to Salem Hospital.

“We all have a role to play in this fight,” Baker said last week. He was talking about the need to stay away from other people to slow the spread of COVID-19. He might just as well have been reminding us that we are all essential, from the seamstress to the stock boy.

 

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