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AT&T gave California stores talking points to explain to law enforcement why they’re open

‘Explain that AT&T is an essential business’ and coronavirus restrictions don’t apply

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

AT&T sent a notice to its authorized retailer companies in California with instructions for how to handle potential questions, including from law enforcement, about why they were remaining open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Describing it as “best practice only,” the guidance sent Thursday “is to be used in the event that any officials, individuals or groups inquire about why the AT&T store is open.”

On Wednesday, AT&T said it was closing 40 percent of its retail stores across the country, with all stores closing on Sundays and the rest open for modified hours. That decision applied to AT&T’s company-owned retail stores, however, not the ones privately owned and operated.

A number of states have issued orders requiring all but essential businesses to close down. AT&T is arguing that it qualifies as an essential business as a “critical communications provider” under Department of Homeland Security guidance. The company also provides technical support at its retail locations for first responders under its FirstNet program.

“Our customers and first responders find the service we provide in our retail locations invaluable, especially at moments like this,” a company spokesman said in an email to The Verge. “Because of the evolving circumstances and guidelines for social distancing, we are balancing the need to serve the public in our retail stores with the health and safety of our customers and our employees.”

AT&T says it was told by the DHS that its retail stores provide “essential services that are critical to the public’s ability to communicate during the current emergency.” If a store is “visited by local government officials or police and they are asking why we’re open during the Shelter in Place order,” the letter instructs workers to “explain that AT&T is an essential business providing essential services and show them the printed copy of the attached letter. If they have further questions please engage your management team.”

The spokesperson added that all AT&T retail workers have received instructions about social distancing and personal hygiene, and stores have posted signs reminding customers of the CDC’s best practices. Store workers have been “asked to clean their hands and wipe down doors, devices, phones, and surfaces after each customer interaction,” and to wipe down the entire store every two hours.

“We are aware of various guidelines and, in some cases, orders that set out requirements for businesses and individuals to follow during the COVID-19 pandemic” according to the memo to stores. “AT&T is committed to adhering to those requirements while also providing essential services to our communities.”

Quarantine orders have spread across the US over the past week. California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide shelter-in-place order which limits the businesses that can remain open. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf issued an order Thursday for all “non-life-sustaining” businesses to close.

On March 13th, AT&T told employees to start working from home, but the order didn’t apply to workers in its retail stores or workers who install equipment for customers.

AT&T previously suspended its arbitrary broadband caps in response to the coronavirus pandemic and has signed onto the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge,” vowing not to disconnect subscribers or charge late fees during the outbreak.

Update: March 20th, 3:30PM: Corrects information from AT&T that the notice was sent to authorized retail stores in California, not to company-owned stores.