Why You Shouldn't Order Nonessential Packages During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Experts weigh in on ethical practices for retail delivery in the time of COVID-19.

If you are sheltering at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, you may be among the many Americans buying creature comforts to upgrade living situations. Shoppers are surge-buying home fitness equipment, computers and monitors, toilet paper, canned goods, and gloves and masks, according to a Tuesday report from Adobe Analytics.

And it’s never been easier to do so. Ordering what you want takes just a few clicks.

But should you be shopping for what you want right now, instead of focusing on what you need?

When weighing whether to order nonessential deliveries, one way to frame the question is, “How do I protect others?” said Jim Thomas, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina and lead author of the American Public Health Association’s code of ethics. And in most cases, the answer for ordering nonessentials is no.

Your retail therapy comes at a cost for delivery and warehouse workers.

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Businesses still operating e-commerce sites are encouraging customers to buy while sheltering at home. Macy’s offers a category of “stay-at-home must-haves,” for example. But business goals can be at odds with the health needs of the workers who fulfill these orders.

On Monday, a group of Amazon warehouse workers walked off the job in Staten Island, New York, to protest the lack of health safety protocols, and thousands of Amazon employees and contractors have signed a petition protesting the “current lack of protective measures” for workers.

Some warehouse employees are speaking out against the increased demand for frivolous online orders, which at some companies are exponentially higher than normal and lead to even more workers interacting with each other on the job. As one worker in a busy Pier 1 warehouse told HuffPost reporter Dave Jamieson, “I don’t want to be the person who died for fragrant oils.”

The fears and frustrations of these workers underscore how buying stuff online may seem frictionless for a customer, but it takes the labor of packaging, shipping, and transportation to make e-commerce deliveries to your doorstep possible. To those performing these tasks, a clear difference exists between a delivery that fulfills your needs to stay safe and healthy, and one that fulfills your need to impulse shop.

Ronnie Stutts, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association ― a labor union representing 135,000 postal workers who each do an average of 500 deliveries a day ― urged customers to show “common sense” about what comprises an essential package right now.

“The key [question] here is ‘Do I really need it or do I just want something that I want right now?’” Stutts said. If it’s the latter, hold off for now, he suggested.

Although the Centers for Disease Control And Prevention says the risk of shoppers getting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, from a shipped package is low, danger lurks for workers with every interaction.

“The more interactions that you have with us, the more likelihood of a carrier coming in contact with [COVID-19],” Stutts said. “The more packages we have to deliver and take to the door, the more chances of maybe contracting it if you don’t keep that social distance.

And of course, human-to-human risk goes both ways.

“Why do we think that we need it? Where would we buy it from? What kinds of safety measures are the companies taking?”

- Jim Thomas, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina

How to weigh what’s actually essential delivery and what’s not.

Deciding what’s a want and a need can be a quarantine quandary, and your must-have may look different from someone else’s.

Thomas said virtue ethics, which is based more on motivations than on outcomes, is one way to decide what’s essential and what’s not for you. Under virtue ethics, intent matters and you should be able to defend your reasoning. That’s why Thomas recommends taking a minute to think over what you’re trying to achieve with your purchase and why it’s important.

“The person who didn’t think about it at all, who showed disregard for whatever and just went ahead and clicked and got it stands in contrast to the person who really gave it careful thought and said, ‘Well, to the best of my knowledge, this is what I’m going to need at this point,’ and they can provide a rationale,” he said.

For considering items on the cusp of essential, Thomas asks himself several questions that others can pose to themselves. In his household, he said, “We have spent time thinking about why do we think that we need it? Where would we buy it from? What kinds of safety measures are the companies taking?”

Thomas highlighted making a purchase from Newegg, a company that outlined steps it is taking to protect its warehouse workers. “I would prefer them over another company for which I can’t gain any information, or the information is just vague, or they spell out something I can’t agree with,” Thomas said. “But with a company that is saying what they’re doing, then I’m more likely to buy from them.”

One other question you can factor into your essential purchase decision is timing: “‘Can I wait for this thing for six weeks?’” Thomas said to ask yourself. “At that point there will be more people who are infected and [have] survived and [are] immune, the risk will be less. The effects on transmission will be less... We’ll be in a different place in terms of the pandemic.”

He used buying exercise gear as an example: “If I can wait six weeks, then maybe I should,” he said.

Thomas noted that these ethical questions have become a lot for consumers to consider because “individuals get squeezed into nearly impossible decisions we have to make because larger decisions were not made earlier on,” like a lack of testing for the coronavirus that fueled its spread in the U.S.

And by limiting your online shopping to what is essential right now, you are considering the workers who make your purchases possible, even when their employers are not.

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