The Push to Keep Pet Stores Open During COVID Shutdowns

As the COVID-19 outbreak unfolded across North America in the first few months of 2020, our leadership team was closely monitoring the situation. With more than 5,000 employees and more than 1,175 stores operating as Pet Valu, Pet Supermarket, Bosley’s, Paulmac’s Pets, Tisol and Total Pet in the United States and Canada, we knew the rapidly evolving situation could have a broad and devastating impact on pets, pet owners and pet businesses. No one knew what impact the virus would have on the population, the economy and the future. Decisions were being made quickly, advice changed by the hour, and there was always the concern of misinformation and misunderstanding.

It became evident that a proactive effort on behalf of pet businesses was needed to help ensure the pet industry would continue to operate as an essential service. Given the speed at which decisions were being taken, we needed to have a single industry voice to all levels of government. So, I reached out to the team at the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) to coordinate our support.

PIJAC serves as the trade association that provides the voice of the responsible pet care community to legislative and regulatory leaders in the United States. PIJAC Canada represents the pet industry in Canada. PIJAC had also been monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak from the beginning. The organization had initiated bringing together a group of pet-related business and trade organization leaders to form a coalition to take action to ensure the health and well-being of everyone in the responsible pet care community and the animals we love. 

On March 11, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19 a pandemic, the pet care community was ready. 

PIJAC spearheaded the outreach in the form of an open letter to federal, state and local government officials regarding pets and COVID-19 precautions. In less than two days, PIJAC drafted the letter and collected input and approval from the initial organization signatories—the American Pet Products Association (APPA), the World Pet Association (WPA), the Pet Industry Distributor’s Association (PIDA), the Pet Food Institute (PFI), IndiePet, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and the American Kennel Club (AKC). 

On March 13, the same day the United States declared a national emergency and before any statewide mandatory closure directives had been implemented, the letter was delivered to select government stakeholders, state governor chiefs of staff, and mainstream and pet trade media.

"An Open Letter to Federal, State and Local Government Officials Regarding Pets and COVID-19 Precautions" urged government officials to consider the needs of pets and the people who care for them as they addressed the COVID-19 crisis. It demonstrated why, as social distancing measures to mitigate the spread of the virus were enacted, businesses and services providing for the food, housing and medical needs of pets needed to be exempted from mandatory retail closures.

The letter expressed that with 67 percent of American households—84.9 million—owning at least one pet, and with 95 percent of pet owners considering their pets to be part of the family, it was critical that businesses that provide for the needs of those pets be included among the critical infrastructure allowed to remain open throughout the crisis. 

"Just as grocery stores and hospitals provide necessary sustenance and medical care to humans, pet stores that sell food, products and supplies, and businesses that offer veterinary and boarding services must remain operational to ensure the continued humane care of animals," the letter said. 

Pet-related businesses large and small, from nearly all of the top 25 national chain retailers to owner-operator grooming businesses, came together as one voice to sign the letter and send it to their local and state government, regulatory and media contacts. The number of signers grew to more than 300 in just days, and to more than 1,000 within weeks.  

In the early days of COVID-19, many jurisdictions were evolving their stance quickly and regularly. We remained in regular contact with PIJAC president and CEO Mike Bober and the PIJAC team to both inform them of local market changes as well as stay informed as to decisions that would impact our ability to continue to serve our customers safely and within established guidelines. The work of PIJAC and the close communication with retailers and trade associations in both the United States and Canada during that time was instrumental to the success in securing status as an essential service in jurisdictions. 

Over the next two weeks, nearly every U.S. locality or state and Canadian province issued closure mandates. Pet businesses and trade organizations served as the pet care community’s eyes and ears, and PIJAC as their voice to lawmakers. PIJAC worked to ensure that the food, housing and medical needs of pets were addressed, to engage with lawmakers to clarify or request revisions to orders as they related to pet businesses, and to frequently communicate status updates back to those impacted. 

Through the height of the outbreak and beyond, PIJAC provided leadership that helped guide our approach to serving customers and keeping them and our staff safe. From our guided shopping experience during the initial restrictions to reopening our stores and resuming grooming and dog wash services to monitoring the evolving situation today, they remain a key partner during this crisis. 

No one business could have achieved what the collective strength of the pet care community coming together as one voice did. Through the combination of proactive efforts, industry collaboration and timeliness of advocacy outreach ahead of most other industry coalition groups, the outcomes for pets and the people that own and care for them positively impacted millions of pets across North America.

Thanks to PIJAC and all the businesses and organizations who supported the effort, our message that pet care is essential was heard loud and clear by lawmakers across the United States and Canada.

The Push to Keep Pet Stores Open During COVID Shutdowns

Richard Maltsbarger is the CEO of Pet Retail Brands. With more than 5,000 employees and over 1,175 stores operating as Pet Valu, Pet Supermarket, Bosley’s, Paulmac’s Pets, Tisol and Total Pet in both the United States and Canada, Pet Retail Brands is one of North America’s largest pet specialty retailers.