News Story

Lockdown Has Third-Generation Family Landscape Firm Closer To The Brink

Nurseries hurting; six nearby states open for business, Michigan is not

As Michigan government’s COVID-19 coronavirus shutdown entered the second week of April, Jerry Somalski, the second-generation owner of Bay Landscaping in Essexville, has customers on hold. And he has serious questions about whether he’ll be able to serve customers or employ workers at all in a month’s time.

Bernie deWit is one of the third generation in his family’s horticultural wholesaler, Lincoln Nurseries in Grand Rapids, which supplies nursery products to retailers in seven states.

Six of the states are (with some modifications) open for business; Michigan is not.

The livelihoods and work of both men, dozens of their employees, and many thousands more in their industry are affected because their work is concentrated in the relatively narrow planting and growing season of the Midwest. And both say they’re having trouble understanding why Michigan appears to have adopted the most restrictive anti-COVID horticultural regime in the region, if not the country.

Somalski said Monday, April 13, was the day a group of his employees who perform lawn and plant maintenance and spring cleanups were scheduled to return to work.

Because of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s prohibition on such activity, however, they will remain on their seasonal unemployment. That’s a minor blessing, he said, since they won’t have to go through the rigors of applying for new benefits from a system that has buckled under the crush of the COVID-19 shutdown.

He’s not sure when he’ll be able to call them back. But unless it’s soon, a significant portion of the work will be lost.

“You can’t do pruning and spring cleanups in mid-summer,” he said.

Lincoln Nurseries’ deWit said he is currently delivering virtually no products to Michigan retailers, normally the company’s second-largest market.

In Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, “everybody is open,” he said, “except in Michigan.”

“My question is what makes Michigan different?” Somalski asked.

“No one wants to jeopardize lives,” he said. “But we can take precautions. We’ve developed protocols” to sanitize equipment and keep workers at a safe social distance, he said.

Whitmer’s insistence that horticultural activity has to be limited to residents mowing their own grass is puzzling, both men said.

On Monday, Whitmer was asked at a press conference about a request by House Speaker Lee Chatfield that she modify her executive shutdown orders to permit commercial activities that could be deemed safe, rather than use the current policy that only “essential” operations be allowed. In response, the governor said, “We can use different language ... but it won’t change what we do.”

Her prohibitions are based on “the best science,” she said.

The more people are out and about, the more danger of infection, she said.

Somalski said he’s been long accustomed to the vicissitudes of working in an industry that requires long-term planning (trees have to be planted long before they can be sold). He is also used to short-term catastrophes, such as the emerald ash borer and financial collapse of 2008-09.

This crisis is unlike anything he’s witnessed.

It is already a disruption, but it doesn’t have to be a catastrophe if some of the restrictions can be lifted in coming weeks, Somalski said.

“Panicking does no one any good,” he said. “But we need some answers. What does (Whitmer) know” about the coronavirus dangers of landscaping and gardening “that all the other governors don’t?”