Landscapers hope for relief as lockdown chips at working season

by JUSTIN COOPER

In March, Troy resident Dave Priest had just gotten a new job at a landscaping company larger than his own, an independent operation he’d owned for three years. He was thinking of buying a house and a new truck.

Now, that job is gone. The house and the truck are “on hold.” And until the state deems it an essential business, he won’t be falling back on his old job, either.

With their services deemed non-essential amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan landscapers are stuck watching grass grow and their working season shrink. Their job, once they can return to it, will be harder, more hazardous and less profitable with each day that passes them by. And the longer they have to wait, the closer they come to ruin.

Since March 24, an executive order has barred any business in Michigan that requires workers to leave home and are not “necessary to sustain or protect life.” The order was later extended until April 30.

Homeowners are allowed to cut their own lawns and those of their neighbors, but a landscaping company may only address a concern that “impairs the habitability” of a residence. The state expects that condition will be met “at most, rarely.” No exception allows workers to landscape places of business in any circumstance.

Landscapers interviewed for this story said what little health risk they pose to the community can be easily mitigated. 

Troy resident Ryan Stuber, who began building his company, Mowmentum Landscaping, in elementary school, implemented contactless policies even before the executive orders. In March, he began taking payments and conducting estimates virtually. 

Stuber also suggested staggering the employees working on a given lawn and limiting each vehicle to only one worker.

Consolidating lawn care into the hands of professionals may even be safer than making homeowners do it themselves, said Troy resident Jim McCauley, who has owned Bobcat Lawn Maintenance for 23 years.

“Would you rather have one lawn service filling their gas tanks, versus 70 individuals filling gas cans for their lawn mowers?” he said.

McCauley is confident that services like his are essential enough they will eventually be allowed to work. He expects landscapers to be deemed essential in any further executive orders and for their season to begin May 1.

“I’m holding my breath,” he said. “If [Gov. Gretchen Whitmer] doesn’t open it then, it’s going to cause real problems for people.”

If landscapers don’t make the cut, though, it would “pretty much wipe out” the industry, Stuber said. Many of the companies are small businesses, often family-owned — McCauley works with his son and a part-time employee. Priest services about 65 lawns by himself with an occasional “helper.”

Landscapers in the area were already coming into this season in a weaker than usual position. Priest said the relatively mild winter yielded about 50 percent less profit from snow plowing than is typical. Now, of the 26-28 weeks he usually landscapes, three have already been taken away, with no clear end yet in sight.

The warmer winter and early spring will also contribute to more intense breeding of pests, like ticks and fleas, that thrive in shaggy grass, Stuber said. Not only are the pests a health risk to homeowners, they also jeopardize the landscapers who must mow one overgrown lawn after another.

Stuber said that of the 140 lawns his company services in Troy and Clawson, multiple are essential businesses that are still drawing foot traffic. Many of his customers are also elderly or don’t have lawn equipment of their own.

In a voice message played at City Council’s April 13 meeting, a landscaper pleaded for the city not to enforce the executive order, but officials insisted their hands were tied.

“We do not have the authority to waive or not apply the governor’s order,” City Manager Mark Miller said. City Attorney Lori Grigg Bluhm said that if Troy didn’t enforce it, state or county authorities would come in to do it for them.

Troy’s website states the ordinance mandating grass heights of less than 8 inches will not be enforced “until after normal operations resume.” Public Works Director Kurt Bovensiep told the Gazette that municipal landscaping has been suspended, but city staff will address individual safety issues, such as vision obstructions.