business news in context, analysis with attitude

Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

•  In the US, there are a reported 215,357 cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with  5,113 deaths and 8,878 reported recoveries.

New York and New Jersey today alone account for almost half of all the cases, at 83,901 and 22,255 respectively.

Globally, there are 950,430 reported coronavirus cases, with 48,276 deaths and 202,627 reported recoveries.

•  From the Washington Post, some encouraging news:

"Mandatory social distancing works. The earlier the better, preliminary data from two weeks of stay-at-home orders in California and Washington show.

"Those states were the first to report community cases of covid-19 and also the first in the nation to mandate residents stay at home to keep physically apart. Analyses from academics and federal and local officials indicate those moves bought those communities precious time — and also may have 'flattened the curve' of infections for the long haul.

"While insufficient testing limits the full picture, it’s clear the disease is spreading at different speeds in different places in the United States. California and Washington continue to see new cases and deaths, but so far they haven’t come in the spikes seen in parts of the East Coast. 

"Social distancing efforts need to continue for several more weeks to be effective, experts say … It has been 16 days since counties in the San Francisco Bay area told some 6 million residents to stay at home, and 13 days since the order extended to all of California. As of Tuesday, the number of confirmed infections per capita in densely populated New York City was 15 times that of the Bay Area. In New York City, a flood of coronavirus patients has overwhelmed local hospitals and 1,096 people have died. New York state ordered people to stay home 11 days ago.

Compared with the Boston area, which has a more-similar population density, California’s Bay Area has about a third of the of the cases, per capita. The state of Massachusetts ordered people to stay home 8 days ago."

Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, says that the data give "“great hope and understanding about what is possible … In New Orleans, and Detroit, and Chicago and Boston right now, [we’re] trying to make sure that each of those cities work more like California than the New York metro area.”

One of the ironies is that there are specific cultural tendencies in California that also have made it harder for the coronavirus to spread - like the fact that public transportation is generally lousy, and more people travel in their own cars.  Go figure - such behavior may not be great for the environment in the long run, but it is really good for suppressing viral spread.

•  The Blaze reports that "Vermont's Agency of Commerce and Community Development has ordered all 'big box' retailers in the state such as Walmart, Target, and Costco to stop the in-store selling of items the agency has determined to be "non-essential" as part of its effort to stop the spread of COVID-19."

The state apparently is saying that "large retailers must cease in-person sales of items that include, but are not limited to: Arts and crafts, beauty supplies, carpet and flooring, clothing, consumer electronics, entertainment (books, music, movies), furniture, home and garden, jewelry, paint, photo services, sports equipment, and toys."  These non-essential items are to be made available "via online portals, telephone, delivery, or curbside pickup, to the extent possible."

•  USA Today reports that beginning tomorrow, Costco "will limit how many people can enter its warehouse clubs as part of its response to the coronavirus," allowing "no more than two people to enter stores with each membership card."

Costco already has reduced its operating hours and offered special times for senior citizens and at-risk shoppers.

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed News reports that Costco "is cutting ties with the contracting company that handled its in-store samples because of decreased foot traffic due to the coronavirus outbreak … On Monday, Costco notified its warehouse managers that it would no longer employ contractors with San Diego–based Club Demonstration Services to clean its warehouses and would shift those responsibilities to its own employees."

The story continues:  "Costco’s shift is just the latest example in the changing labor environment as corporations attempt to deal with the economic realities presented by the novel coronavirus. Even Costco, which initially experienced a surge in business as shoppers flocked to its stores to stock up and prepare, has shown it's not immune."

•  The Associated Press reports that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said yesterday that "everyone in the nation’s second-largest city (should) start wearing masks to combat the coronavirus."  The mayor said that "he had been awaiting advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on mask-wearing but with the COVID-19 rate surging had decided to wait no longer.

"The mayor said all 4 million residents who are performing essential tasks such as food shopping should wear homemade, non-medical face coverings, or even bandannas, as people in other COVID-19-struck countries have done."

California Governor Gavin Newsom, the AP writes, has not been willing to quite so far - yet - and instead has been focusing on "keeping people inside. He also announced the state may need 66,000 additional hospital beds, 16,000 more than previously forecast, to handle the crush of illnesses expected during the second part of May."

California has the third most cases in the US - behind New York and New Jersey - with 9,936 cases and 215 deaths.

While the federal government has not issued guidance suggesting that everybody should wear some sort of face mask when outside, there has been a fair amount of public debate about the issue, with some doctors suggesting that such a move is inevitable.

At the same time, the New York Times reports, "at Office Depot, employees have been told that they cannot wear masks in the store. Some Walgreens workers say they were also discouraged from wearing them. Many other large retailers, including Target, have started to allow masks, but are leaving it up to employees to procure their own supplies … Stop & Shop, the regional grocery chain, is supplying protective shields that cover employees’ faces. The store is not providing masks, though employees are allowed to wear their own … A Walgreens representative said workers who wished to wear masks could do so."

"Walmart said on Tuesday that it would begin supplying masks to its employees in the United States, but acknowledged that delivering them to all its stores and distribution centers could take as long as two weeks," the story says.

Give Walmart credit for being ahead of the game at this point.  There is no excuse - NO EXCUSE - for any retailer to deny their workers the right to wear masks in-store.  These people are at risk, and they need to do whatever they can to protect themselves, their families, their co-workers, and, quite frankly, other shoppers.  In fact, I think more retailers should follow the Walmart model, not just allowing masks for providing them.

•  Following Walmart's announcement this week that it will begin taking employees' temperatures when they arrive at work, in addition to providing them with personal protective equipment (PPE), Amazon-owned Whole Foods said this week that it is doing the same thing at its flagship Columbus Circle location in Manhattan, and plans to roll out the practice nationwide.

•  With the decisions by Pennsylvania and Florida to issue stay-at-home orders this week, it means that just 15 states do not have them.

Axios writes that "the two are the latest states to announce policies to enforce social distancing, which have affected more 250 million Americans. More than 1.5 billion people worldwide had been asked to remain at home as of last week."

Not sure what the other 15 are waiting for.  A doctor I found to be utterly persuasive on TV this morning said that communities that look at New York and say, "that isn't us" should instead look at New York and say, "this will be us in two weeks."  And then proceed accordingly.

•  The Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has issued to a reminder to the state's retailers that, while she understands the need to take “extra precautions” in the midst of the pandemic, it remains illegal not to take cash.

"I understand that essential businesses need to take extra precautions right now. But not everyone has a credit card, and consumers should not face economic barriers to accessing necessary goods and services," she said on Twitter.

Some context from the Globe:  "Even as many brick-and-mortar shops have been forced to close due to the coronavirus outbreak, many essential businesses that remain open have asked customers not to use cash over concerns that dollars bills could transmit the highly contagious disease.

"However, as the Associated Press reported last month, health experts say the risk of transferring the virus through the use of paper money appears to be low, especially compared to the person-to-person contact officials have advised people to avoid."

•  The New York Times reports that "Home Depot has ordered all 2,300 of its stores in North America to stop sales of N95 masks to try to free them up for those on the front lines of the coronavirus emergency response."

"We stopped restocking stores a couple weeks ago to prioritize shipments for hospitals and first responders,” Sara Gorman, a spokeswoman for Home Depot, said in an email on Wednesday night. “As an extra precaution, we locked them down with a stop sale beginning last week."

The story notes that "the demand for masks, gowns, face shields and gloves has skyrocketed during the spread of the virus, which has killed at least 4,726 people and sickened more than 209,000 in the United States.  The frantic competition for supplies has resulted in a number of high-profile episodes of hoarding and price-gouging. It has drawn scrutiny to retailers that sell personal protective equipment, commonly known as P.P.E."

Home Depot was not the only major retailer to redirect supplies because of the crisis, the story says, as both Lowe's and Target have redirected their stock of the N95 masks to medical professionals.

The Home Depot announcement "came on the same day that President Trump said that the federal government’s stockpile of personal protective equipment had nearly been depleted by the states."

•  ABC News  reports that "Menards has received a second notice from the Michigan Attorney General's Office, this time for encouraging customers to visit stores for non-essential reasons.

Menards is allowed to remain open under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's 'Stay Home, Stay Safe' order. But the company is supposed to limit operations to sustaining or protecting life.

"Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said the retailer is using marketing and sales practices to draw in customers for non-essential purposes.  She sent Menards a letter on Wednesday demanding the company stop any activities that violate the spirit of Whitmer's stay home order."

•  The New York Times reports that "arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby drew a rebuke on Wednesday from Colorado officials, who said the retailer was not complying with stay-at-home orders in the state and must immediately close its stores during the coronavirus outbreak.

"In a cease-and-desist letter to the company, W. Eric Kuhn, the senior assistant state attorney general, wrote that it had come to the attention of the Colorado Department of Health that Hobby Lobby had reopened its stores in the state this week.

"Mr. Kuhn wrote the company’s actions violated a March 25 executive order signed by Gov. Jared Polis directing Coloradans to stay at home and requiring all businesses to close that were not designated by state health officials as critical."

Hobby Lobby also had to be ordered by the state of Ohio to close its stores, the Times says, after it ignored previous state directives.

This kind of behavior is reprehensible in this environment.

Though hardly limited to certain retailers.

The Times also notes that "Colorado’s action against Hobby Lobby comes as governors across much of the United States have signed stay-at-home orders and health authorities have urged Americans to practice social distancing. Still, some haven’t heeded the advice, from spring breakers to some megachurches. In Florida, a pastor was arrested after defying virus orders."

There are concerns that some churches across the country will either ignore stay-at-home orders or actively encourage their members to violate them this weekend during the Palm Sunday observances and next weekend for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

•  From the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS):

"Convenience retailers say they have seen an increase in sales of grocery staples as customers are increasingly turning to their local convenience store for pantry items. Here are findings from a national survey conducted by NACS, the trade association that represents the more than 152,000 convenience and fuel retailers in the United States:

- More than half of convenience retailers (52%) say their grocery sales have increase.

- Convenience stores are offering more at-home products: 52% are adding more cleaning/toiletry items, 31% are emphasizing ready-to-heat meals, 28% are offering more multi-pack/bulk items.

- Stores have dramatically scaled back self-serve foodservice and restaurant functions but are offering new programs to allow social distancing and to enhance convenience: 14% are offering some sort of curbside pickup program and 11% have added or increased delivery options: 66% have closed public seating and dining areas, 45% have removed customer access to self-serve foodservice like coffee, fountain drinks, bakery items and roller grill.

- Virtually all retailers (99%) say they have enhanced their cleaning protocols for high-touch surfaces, with regular cleaning conducted as often as every 20 minutes.

Illustrating, I think, something that was true before and may be even more true in the future - that consumers care less about format and more about who has what they want when they need it.  Which puts virtually every retailer at risk, and gives virtually every retailer greater opportunities.

•  Major League Baseball announced that it has cancelled a two game series scheduled to be played in London on June 13-14 between the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, citing the pandemic.

MLB previously had cancelled series scheduled to be played in Mexico City and Puerto Rico, and has placed the opening of the regular season on hold for the time being.

“We made the decision because it was unlikely the events would go forward, and timely cancellation allowed us to preserve important financial resources,” said Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Hate to say it, but I am completely persuaded that the NHL and NBA seasons are over … that it is likely that the baseball season could be cancelled, and I'm not even sure that the NFL or college football seasons will begin on time.  At the moment, before we have a vaccine or even broad-based testing, it would be utterly irresponsible to even consider putting thousands of people into a stadium for a sporting event.

•  As expected, The All England Lawn Tennis Club announced that it is cancelling the Wimbledon tournament this year, the first time it has been called off since World War II.   It will not be rescheduled for later in 2020, and will return in its usual calendar slot in 2021.

At the same time, Variety reports that "the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the U.K.’s largest arts festival and the launchpad for countless comedy and stage acts, will be shelved this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"The Fringe is among five Edinburgh festivals that have been canceled in light of COVID-19 concerns. This group also includes the Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

"The cancellation of all five festivals, which have been held in the Scottish city for more than 70 years, is a massive blow to Edinburgh, which is transformed every summer by the events, welcoming around 4.4 million attendees and more than 25,000 artists, writers and performers from 70 countries."

•  The Washington Post reports that a group of Americans that does not want to run out of eggs has "turned to backyard chickens to help get them through the days of quarantine and social distancing. As a result, hatcheries nationwide are reporting spikes in orders as they scramble to keep pace with the newfound demand.

"Cackle Hatchery, based in Missouri, which hatches about 250,000 baby birds per week, has already seen a 100 percent increase in sales this year. McMurray Hatchery, a century-old establishment in Iowa that sells millions of hatched eggs each year, has been so busy that callers have had to wait in a queue for orders and inquiries for the past two weeks, often with as many as 10 people ahead of them."

The story says that "hatcheries are also seeing a swell of interest for broilers, chickens that are bred and raised for meat. McMurray’s Hatchery noted a rise in 'homesteaders types,' or buyers with small farms and acreage who want to raise their own meat sources."

No yolk?