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Laundromats, an essential service as the coronavirus spreads?

March 23, 2020

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In 52 years of running a laundromat in Randolph, Maine, Kitty Carrier has only shut down twice — once due to a flood and then during an ice storm. On Tuesday, she decided to close again, this time because of the coronavirus outbreak

For Carrier, the decision was a no-brainer, and one she said she made with her six part-time employees and her customers in mind. 

"I'm closed. My employees have children, and I don't think people stay home even if they have a cold," Carrier, owner of Randolph Poly Clean, told CBS MoneyWatch. "My two daughters are school teachers and so is my son-in-law, and they're home. If everybody would stay home, maybe we could get this virus out of here."

On the other side of the country, Michael Nemetz decided to keep his three laundromats open. That includes his MegaWash Laundromat in Sparks, Nevada, a state where all but essential businesses has been ordered shut, including laundromats. 

"What I'm seeing across the country is politicians are doing a good job of saying what should close, but they're not doing a good job of identifying essential businesses that should remain open," Nemetz said. "I operate in different states, and one state is telling me to stay open and another state didn't really define what should stay open."

In California, the mayor of San Francisco did list laundromats as among the city's essential services in a coordinated "shelter-in-place" order in effect in six Bay Area counties, including in Carmichael, where Nemetz also owns a MegaWash Laundromat, and in Manteca, where he operates the Spin Cycle Laundry Lounge.

As in Carrier's case, Nemetz said his decision to remain open came with the public in mind. 

"Imagine if you're unable to wash your clothes for six weeks — that's a health problem right there," he said. "People who come to us are grateful to us for still being open. If you're going to be asked to sanitize your home and you need to clean and sanitize your rags, linens and bedspreads, what better place than a laundromat, with hot water and a dryer." 

Nemetz emphasized that his staff now extensively cleans his three laundromats four times a day. "It's almost like a medical facility in terms of sanitizing," he said, adding, "We want to protect our employees and our customers."

Brian Wallace, president and CEO of the Coin Laundry Association, said owners of the roughly 30,000 coin-operated laundromats across the U.S. are concerned that states are considering broader business closures. While lawmakers think of gas stations, food stores and pharmacies as essential, "laundromats may not be top of mind for folks that have these decisions to make," he said. "We think laundromats are providing an essential service as a matter of public health and hygiene, especially in light of the coronavirus outbreak." 

The trade group's members are stepping up their cleaning regiments and taking steps to limit crowds in stores. They're also encouraging customers to load their wash, wait for that cycle time in their cars and then fold their clothes at home, Wallace said.

"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," offered Carrier. "We're very busy here on the weekends, I have to consider the public," she added of her decision to close. "Just as soon as this epidemic is over, we'll get back up and help everybody. We'll survive. "

While Nemetz and many other small business owners have changed how they operate to continue running amid restrictions designed to ensure "social distancing", Carrier is not considering alternatives taken by other laundromats, such as encouraging people to fold their clothes at home or only taking drop-off laundry. 

"That was one of our biggest fears, the people who drop off — how do you know they haven't been sick?" she asked. "One of my girls, she says to me during a drop off, 'I have no idea what's in this laundry'," Carrier recalls in relaying her workers' worries. "Her child is an epileptic, so she's afraid of taking it home to him."

As for Americans who rely on laundromats for clean clothes, Nemetz has some friendly advice: "If you want to maintain your good health, Tuesday and Wednesday are always the slowest days, so consider going midweek if you want to keep a safe distance from your neighbors."

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