Is Dog Grooming Essential? PetSmart Says Yes, Pressuring Hundreds To Come In To Work

As the coronavirus pandemic rips across the country, governors in nearly every state have ordered the closure of all but the most essential businesses. On Monday, however, PetSmart, a big-box retailer of pet supplies with 1,650 North American locations, reopened hundreds of its dog-grooming salons.

The decision increased traffic to the stores and infuriated employees who say they are risking exposure to a deadly virus to perform a nonessential task.

Should they be questioned, PetSmart told employees, they should tell authorities that pet owners can’t brush their dog’s fur or clean their teeth at home, and that grooming will help reduce the spread of viruses. These talking points, reviewed by HuffPost, are bogus, groomers said.

“It sounds like a lot of corporate excuses to justify what they want to do,” said a groomer, who like others interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re just smelly and need their nails trimmed. There is nothing that we do that a dog owner cannot do at home.”

Groomers, some of whom have a base pay of less than $10 an hour, say there is no way to perform their jobs without coming into close physical contact with pet owners and other workers, which risks spreading the virus. In many states, PetSmart may also be flouting governors’ orders against operating nonessential businesses. 

By reopening its salons, PetSmart has joined the ranks of numerous companies that are stretching the meaning of “essential” business to keep operating during the pandemic.

Everyone in our store is pretty angry. It’s ushering people out of their houses. It’s giving them a reason to be out and about and moving the virus around. PetSmart groomer

As of Wednesday, governors in 45 states have told residents to stay at home and have ordered total or partial shutdowns of nonessential businesses to stop the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Most states have classified PetSmart and other pet stores as essential businesses so that pet owners can buy necessities like dog food and cat litter.

PetSmart’s pet salons — which are a high-margin part of its business — are another story. Although they are located inside the big box stores, the legality of providing pet grooming services during the coronavirus pandemic is questionable. 

Only a few states have made rules on pet grooming explicit. Oklahoma has allowed some grooming services to continue, while authorities in Ohio charged a woman with a misdemeanor for allowing dog grooming to continue at her animal hospital. On Tuesday, PetSmart company closed salon services in Los Angeles after Popular Information, a newsletter, noted that the city had explicitly suspended dog grooming.

In Michigan, where several PetSmart employees who spoke to HuffPost are located, the governor suspended all in-person nonessential businesses on March 23. The state later issued exemptions related to pets, but those cover basic care — buying pet food or medication, for example — or veterinary care that is lifesaving or treats a pet’s “serious pain.”

PetSmart locations across the state of Michigan are charging ahead with the interpretation that grooming is allowed, too. A company representative said 22 of its 40 grooming locations in the state are up and running.

“Everyone in our store is pretty angry,” said one groomer. “It’s ushering people out of their houses. It’s giving them a reason to be out and about and moving the virus around.”

A steady drip of dog owners are making new appointments — although not enough that this groomer expects to clear the threshold for earning a commission. 

An employee and a former employee of at least one PetSmart location in Michigan reported the store to the police this week for violating Michigan’s shutdown order. So far, local law enforcement has not moved to shut that location down.

“We have been contacted by local law enforcement in some stores, and in every instance, we have cooperated and fully complied with their requests,” a PetSmart spokesperson said. “Many times, we’ve shared our operational improvements to enable social distancing, and the officer or inspector has felt confident these measures were sufficient for us to remain in operation.”

An Impossible Choice

PetSmart initially closed most of its grooming salons on March 21 “out of concern for the safety and wellbeing of both our associates and customers,” the company said in a public statement. But it reopened many of those locations on Monday, April 6. 

The company says its grooming salons underwent a “redesign” during their closure. “We have implemented stringent new measures that follow the social distancing and sanitary guidelines detailed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” PetSmart said in a public statement. 

PetSmart workers are not being asked to perform services that require more than one person to be in the salon and are being told not to accept leashes and collars, a company spokesperson told HuffPost.

Some “redesigns”, however, consists of no more than providing salon employees with disposable gloves, homemade face masks and a cleaning product, Oxivir Five 16, workers told HuffPost. The spray is effective at killing the coronavirus, but workers are responsible for cleaning.

The realities of dog grooming make it impossible to keep the CDC-recommended six feet of distance away from other people. One worker said it recently took two employees standing face to face to hoist a large dog onto a grooming table and make sure it didn’t squirm while getting its hair cut. 

Groomers say they are still touching objects like leashes, collars and dog crates made of plastic, where the virus may survive for many hours. And although customers can prepay for dog grooming online, many still enter the store to pay at the register. 

PetSmart is not even asking owners with COVID-19 to refrain from sending their pets to the store, but rather asking for that pet owner to send their pet via an “agent,” such as another member of their household.

Groomers who are refusing to work in those conditions are taking unpaid leave, according to the workers who spoke with HuffPost, and PetSmart is not guaranteeing their jobs back when the crisis ends. Most workers have accrued only a few paid vacation days.

For those who have no choice but to work, PetSmart is paying groomers their regular hourly pay; it has not joined companies like Kroger and Amazon in offering small “hazard pay” raises. One groomer, who took leave rather than work in the salon, said his pay was so low that he did not earn enough to qualify for unemployment benefits.

The company has waived attendance policies for workers who choose to stay home, the spokesperson said, and is paying 100% of health care premiums for furloughed workers in locations where salons are not allowed to operate. As for workers who are choosing to stay home, PetSmart is “working with associates to ensure they can return to the business when they feel the time is right for them personally.”

“We respect everyone’s choices under these difficult circumstances.” 

PetSmart: Dog Grooming Is ‘Much Like Washing Your Hands’

PetSmart sent employees a set of talking points to repeat to local law enforcement and government officials if they question why the pet salons are open. 

The talking points strongly imply that dog groomers are actually helping to prevent the spread of a dangerous disease. Although the communication stresses that there is no evidence that dogs can spread COVID-19, it also states in nearly the same breath that dog grooming is “much like washing your hands” and is essential to stopping the spread of “viruses.”

“Effectively bathing a pet (much like washing your hands) removes germs from a pet’s coat. Like washing your hands, washing a pet will help reduce the likelihood of spread where viruses have been in contact with the pet’s fur. To date, the CDC does not have evidence that companion animals, including pets, can spread COVID-19,” the talking points read.

“To be clear,” a company spokesperson said, “PetSmart has never suggested or implied that dog grooming will prevent the spread of COVID-19. Pet grooming is an important part of a dog’s health, but these concerns are not related to the ongoing pandemic.”

It is accurate that there is currently no evidence of household pets or their fur transmitting the coronavirus.

But other claims PetSmart is making are suspect — like its claim that pet salons are crucial for dogs’ health. The talking points for law enforcement also state that a typical pet owner cannot perform services like brushing a dog’s teeth, brushing its coat, trimming its nails, or cleaning its ears without injuring the dog.

“Hygiene such as teeth brushing, ear cleaning, nail trimming and brushing are essential aspects of regular dog care and cannot be performed by the dog themselves. Pet Parents typically cannot perform these functions themselves without risk of injury to themselves or the pet.”

In fact, most pet owners can perform basic grooming tasks at home. Older pet owners and pet owners with disabilities may have trouble doing so. But that is not PetSmart’s justification for keeping its salons open, and PetSmart isn’t limiting grooming to customers with disabilities or service animals.

Instead, a salon in Michigan is mostly catering to pet owners who are simply bored, a groomer said.

“Dogs need care, but it doesn’t have to be provided by us,” this person said. “It’s just not essential to bring them to a groomer.” 

CORRECTION: This article initially mischaracterized as a “former employee” one of the individuals who contacted the Michigan police in regard to a PetSmart location. That individual is a current employee.

A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus

Love HuffPost? Become a founding member of HuffPost Plus today.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.