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PIJAC Provides Pet Retailers with Much Needed Info and Resources


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While many of us were walking the show floor at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., during the last week of February harboring the dangerously false impression that the coronavirus (COVID-19) would mainly be a problem for China, officials at the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) were already on alert about how this might affect pet owners, their animals and pet-related businesses. They got straight to work on preparing to address the concerns that were certain to come up within the industry as it related to the rapidly spreading virus.

Barely two weeks later, the World Health Organization (WHO) would declare the outbreak a pandemic, turning the day-to-day lives of millions in the U.S. upside down as state and federal legislators responded to the threat. Meanwhile, from an economic standpoint, businesses of all kinds started coming to the realization that the weeks and possibly months ahead would be anything but business as usual.

Fortunately, since the early days of the emerging pandemic, PIJAC has stepped up to offer guidance and pull together various pet industry players to form a unified force to address some of the most urgent concerns to arise during this crisis. PIJAC was on the forefront of the push to urge legislators across the country to count pet specialty stores as essential businesses when ordering temporary closures of other types of business. An open letter signed by more 1,100 industry members to date helped to ensure that the importance of pet retail would not be overlooked or underestimated in the rush to figure out how to respond to the pandemic in the U.S.

That letter, however, is not all that the organization has done to support its members and the industry at large. Pet Product News recently spoke with PIJAC president and CEO Mike Bober, who shared how the letter came to be as well as highlighted all the ways the organization continues to be a resource and a unifying force for the industry.

Pet Product News: When did PIJAC started communicating with the community at large about COVID-19?

Mike Bober: We really got started with it almost concurrently with Global Pet Expo. We had started to get some heads-up alerts from our allies at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. We actually operate under a memorandum of understanding with them where we are their liaison to the pet care community for outbreak issues, and so we got some updates from them about this emerging health issue, specifically as it related to pets. If you remember, I think it was the last day of Global when the first notice came out about the dog in Hong Kong that tested positive. So, there were some questions at that point. 

The guidance that the CDC has put out has been consistent, and there is still no evidence that pets are vectors to transmit this. That being said, we really wanted to make sure that we were out in front ahead of it, and, as pet owners, we [were] dealing with the uncertainty of the prospect of whether their animal might be a danger to them. We really wanted to make sure that we were sharing good information as widely as possible, as quickly as possible. So, that was the first thing that we did to get involved.

When we came back from Global, we sat down and looked at what our continuity plan was going to look like… I think it was Friday, probably Friday the 13th, appropriately enough, [when] we at PIJAC began the process of putting together the coalition for the open letter because we were starting to see that there were definitely localities that were starting to implement either mandatory closures of nonessential businesses or even shelter-in-place requirements.

With some input from some of our more active members, we realized that the conversation was going to need to happen as to what does and doesn’t constitute an essential business, and we had a very real concern that animal health and well-being was going to be an afterthought for a lot of elected officials. Obviously and understandably, their first priority is human health, but we’ve seen going back to as far as Hurricane Katrina the extent to which pet owners will go to take care of their animals, even under the most trying of circumstances, and the last thing we wanted was situations where people were putting themselves and others at risk to care for their pets.

The first thing we did was to reach out to APPA [American Pet Products Association], PIDA [Pet Industry Distributors Association], WPA [World Pet Association] and the Pet Food Institute [PFI], because together, our distribution network really does kind of cover the broadest possible scope of the pet care community. We also realized that there was a new trade association that had been formed or was in the process of forming—the Independent and Neighborhood Pet Retail Association. They go by Indie Pet. So, we also reached out to them and then, because we knew that a lot of this was going to have implications for the human-animal bond, we reached out to HABRI [Human Animal Bond Research Institute]. We heard from AKC [American Kennel Club] that they were interested as well, a little bit later in the process. 

That was our coalition of organizations, but at the same time, we also knew that in order for a letter like this to really resonate with the elected officials, they needed to see more than associations involved—they need to see businesses whose names they recognize. They needed to see towns that reflected their own jurisdiction, so that was when we realized that we couldn’t just make this a letter from the associations. It really needed to reflect the voice of the retail community.

PPN: What kind of reaction have you received to the letter?

Bober: We were really one of the first to be out there talking about why our trade is essential, and I think because we spelled it out in a fairly neutral, very reasonable way right off the bat, the response was phenomenal. Any elected official or staff that we shared it with said, “Oh, yeah, you’re 100 percent right. This absolutely needs to be in [the list of essential businesses].” 

A great example of that is Miami. Up until [April 1], Florida didn’t have statewide closures in place, but Miami-Dade County was one of the first jurisdictions in Florida to really take it upon themselves to define what was and wasn’t essential. And from the conversations of some of the retailers on the ground down there, we were able to explicitly get pet supply stores listed as essential retail type business from the very first version of their definitions.

PPN: At this point, are you confident that should more state and local government put out shelter-in-place orders, they will see pet businesses as essential?

Bober: We’ve been very pleased to see that, generally speaking, people either explicitly include pet retail, or they assume that they’re including pet retail when they reference certain other [businesses]. That was an early challenge for us. In New York, we had a situation where Governor Cuomo announced that the stay-at-home order was going to go into effect. He announced it on Friday, and it was going to go into effect Sunday night. But the guidance was unclear as to whether or not pet retail was going to be counted as exempt because of the way that his order was published. So it really required us to make sure that our folks on the ground in New York were communicating with some of the key people in the Department of Agriculture and Markets as well as with legislators to ask them to clarify that pet retail was in fact essential, and that guidance did come out that Sunday evening, so we were pleased to see that from the beginning of the stay-at-home order, pet was protected.

PPN: How many signatures do you currently have on the letter?

Bober: We have a system in place where every evening, we run a new version of the tracking sheet, and we use that to then generate the new signatory list. So, as of the most recent version of the tracking sheet, it has 1,134 signatories on it.

Nine association signatories and 18 national retailer names, which are CEOs and other top executives from national chains, who, by the way, together really do comprise the entirety of the top 25 pet retailers across the country.

That was something that really impressed us—how everybody got it and everybody embraced it so quickly. We at PIJAC do our best to represent the pet care community at all times, but the truth is that [we are a] membership organization, not everybody in the community [are] members … but this letter has gone so much further in terms of bringing the community together around this core issue. We’re in communication with people that we’ve never spoken to before, despite them being very significant players within the pet care community.

I think this bodes really well for us long term, and by “us,” I mean the entirety of the pet care community. It really is going to give us a starting point for future communication and collaboration that I think is going to allow us to do much more than we have in the past in terms of working together to make sure the pets are cared for.

PPN: Let’s talk a little bit about what resources PIJAC has for pet businesses right now related to COVID-19.

Bober: Absolutely. One of the things we tried to do early on was to give people sort of a landing page so to speak—a place to go to get a coordinated version of what we were putting out, and that’s pijac.org/covid19.

Anyone who goes to that page can find the most up-to-date listing of the resources that our team has put together, and they’re broken up into two sections. There are resources with regard to protecting human and pet health, which include things like the statement that we put out about off-label use of chloroquine phosphate, which is the fish and pond cleaner that, unfortunately, led to the death of that gentleman down in Arizona.

There are also recommendations to protect employees and customers and animals, guidance from the CDC, and from the American Veterinary Medical Association [AVMA]—basically, any of our allies and partners out there whose priority is focusing on public health and also animal health. We’ve done our best to try to bring the resources together.

We also have business continuity information and resources including a state-by-state spreadsheet updating the various shelter-at-home and mandatory closure orders, but unlike a lot of the resources that are out there, ours actually goes a step further and highlights the specific language within the order that references or establishes pet retail as essential. So, it gives people guidance to say, [for example,]  “Yes, we’re essential, and you can find it at section 2 of executive order 39.”

[The website] also has resources up regarding business assistance that has been put out by the states and the federal government in terms of Small Businesses Association [SBA] loans and state assistance programs. We’re doing our best to gather that and to update it as we find new information, but that, to be honest, is not PIJAC’s core mission. There are other organizations out there that are doing it as well as us and, certainly, we would want people to get the best information they can.

There’s the ability there on the site to sign on to the letter if people haven’t already, as well as to reference some of the other association letters that we at PIJAC and the other associations are signing on to on behalf of the industry.

PPN: Lastly, what advice do you have for pet retailers?

Bober: The communications that we’ve had with folks on the ground out there is exactly what you’d expect. There’s tremendous uncertainty out there; there’s a real desire for good information and a real desire for clarity that, unfortunately, isn’t always available. So everyone is doing their best to kind of operate in a way that makes the most sense for them. The advice that I would have right now is to remember that everything we do in the pet care community is geared toward protecting or improving animal health and well-being, but that the businesses owners especially also have a responsibility to keep in mind the needs of their employees as well.

This is a time when everything that we’re doing needs to come back to the question of: How does this help someone? How does this help pets? How does this help pet owners? How does this help my staff? We can focus on those core functions; we can focus on being the source for good information, the source for helpful nutritious food, the source for enriching products, the source for the animals that provide comfort.

I think HABRI and Mars Petcare just put out a study recently that specifically points to the benefits of the human-animal bond in addressing isolation, depression and loneliness, and that is so important right now. I think that’s one of the reasons that we’re seeing so many people stepping up to adopt and foster animals.

This is a great opportunity for people to experience those benefits of the human-animal bond that we have talked about for so long, while at the same doing a very real, good service by making sure that animals are being cared for as well. This is the beautiful, mutual benefit of that bond in action, in a time of crisis, and it’s something I think we can all be very proud to be a part of supporting.

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