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States With the Most Essential Businesses

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A swath of the U.S. from the south Atlantic into the heartland has the greatest number of businesses deemed essential during a stay-at-home order. Nonessential businesses are now joining critical industries, opening their doors to the public for the first time in weeks as most state governors loosen COVID-19 restrictions.

Although essential businesses vary by state, they often belong to industries such as health care, food and agriculture, communications and emergency services. For this new study, LendingTree measured essential businesses in every state as defined by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Key findings

  • Maryland tops the list — 81.5% of all businesses in the state are considered essential. Maryland has a large number of restaurants and physicians’ offices.
  • Second-place Virginia is just one percentage point below Maryland at 80.6%. Restaurants and religious organizations are most common among Virginia’s essential businesses.
  • Oklahoma ranked third with 80.5% of businesses considered essential. The large number of religious organizations in the state pushed it to the top of our list.
  • Washington, D.C. falls in last place on our list. Of the 72.8% essential businesses in Washington, D.C., public relations agencies are most prevalent. Like other urban areas, the high density of at-risk and nonessential businesses may be the reason for the low ranking of the nation’s capital.
  • Hawaii and Wisconsin round out the bottom three with 74.5% and 76% of businesses considered essential, respectively.

States with the largest share of essential businesses

1. Maryland

Of the 139,143 businesses in Maryland, 113,421 are considered essential. Maryland’s stay-at-home order went into effect on March 30, limiting all nonessential activities statewide. Airports, grocery stores and hospitals were among the essential local businesses permitted to stay open.

The governor lifted the statewide order on May 15, though some cities and counties, including Baltimore, will stay under the order for a while longer. Nonessential businesses in those areas may remain closed or open at limited capacity while the restrictions are in place.

2. Virginia

Virginia has 162,469 essential businesses out of 201,593 total businesses in the state. Virginia businesses and residents were originally expected to remain under a stay-at-home order from March 24 to June 10, but the first phase of reopening began May 15 in certain parts of the state. Some restaurants are now allowed to open outdoor seating to 50% capacity, while retail businesses and places of worship can also open at 50% capacity.

Like in Maryland, the restrictions on businesses vary by city and county. However, some Virginia residents have begun disregarding localized restrictions — such as the stay-at-home order in Northern Virginia — and crowding off-limits parks and waterfront areas.

3. Oklahoma

Out of 93,431 businesses in Oklahoma, 75,192 are considered essential. Oklahoma’s definition of essential industries includes construction and infrastructure, finance, restaurants and retail, among others. Religious services is the state’s most prominent essential offering, according to our analysis.

Oklahoma’s governor did not place the state under a mandatory stay-at-home order, instead putting a safer-at-home policy in place to require senior residents older than 65 or people with underlying medical conditions to remain home. Many citywide stay-at-home orders expired May 1 in some of the biggest areas in the state, including Oklahoma City. Nonessential businesses like malls, restaurants, and hair and nail salons are now open throughout the state.


To rank the states with the most essential businesses, researchers analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s 2016 County Business Patterns Survey. We compared the total number of establishments in each state to the number of essential establishments. Essential businesses were defined according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The state with the largest number of essential businesses as a percent of total businesses ranked first. The state with the lowest figure ranked last.

Each state may have its own list of what businesses it considers essential. We used Minnesota’s list of critical industries because the list included NAICS codes, which allowed us to compare those industries to Census Bureau data. Workers in industries considered critical on this list qualify for Critical Sector worker exemption, meaning they may leave home during a stay-at-home order to go to work if they are not able to work from home. This does not necessarily mean that those workers’ employers will stay open. For example, many restaurants have closed or religious organizations were prohibited from holding services.

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