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 now have been 644,348 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 28,554 deaths and 48,708 reported recoveries.

Globally, we now have passed two million coronavirus cases, reaching 2,094,725 confirmed cases as of this morning, with 135,562 deaths and 520,930 reported recoveries.

As a side note … my local Patch reports that in my home state of Connecticut, which lies just to the east of New York - which has been the nation's largest pandemic hot spot - authorities yesterday "announced another 197 coronavirus-related deaths Wednesday along with 766 new cases … State COO Josh Geballe said the high death toll was due to a catch-up period of processing data over the past two weeks. Part of that was due to a backlog from the Office of the State Medical Examiner."

It is an example of how the virus does not respect borders or boundaries.  I live in a town where a large percentage of adults get on the train each morning to commute to New York City.  Those trains are running mostly empty these days, but a growth in cases and deaths is a clear reflection of the degree to which the pandemic is spreading.  Its impact should not be minimized.

•  The New York Times this morning reports that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo yesterday said "that he would start requiring people in New York to wear masks or face coverings in public whenever social distancing was not possible.

"The order will take effect on Friday and will apply to people who are unable to keep six feet away from others in public settings, such as on a bus or subway, on a crowded sidewalk or inside a grocery store … The new requirements are bound to make face coverings an inescapable and perhaps jarring sight in New York City for the foreseeable future. They could also introduce a level of mutual obligation and civic duty about wearing masks in public that is more firmly established in Asia than in the West."

Similar rules also were announced for Connecticut and Maryland.

•  MarketWatch reports that Walmart-owned Sam's Club announced yesterday that "it will reserve Sunday morning shopping hours between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. for healthcare workers and first responders. Previously, the hours had been set aside for Sam's Club associates to shop."

•  From the Boston Globe:

"Grocery delivery has gone mad.

"People are setting alarms for the wee hours based on rumors that slots are released after midnight. They are jumping at five-day windows, when even five hours used to be unacceptable. Horribly, they are reportedly luring Instacart gig workers with big tips and then changing the tip to $0 once the job is done.

"With health officials warning Americans to stay away from grocery stores, and Massachusetts bracing for a COVID-19 surge, scoring a delivery or pickup slot is like winning the world’s most pathetic lottery."

The conclusion, after chronicling all the various tactics people are using to get food delivered:  "Oh, for the days when Thanksgiving shopping was stressful."

•  Digital Commerce 360 reports that "Amazon Business is going all-out to build inventory of supplies that medical professionals, first-responders, scientists and others need to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the company says."  Those supplies include such personal protective products, or PPE, as facial shields and N95 masks; ventilators, digital thermometers, exam gloves and sanitizers.

“Inventory of these critical supplies is currently very limited and products will have quantity limits,” Amazon says in the special COVID-19 supplies section of Amazon Business. “We are urgently working across suppliers and manufacturers to procure additional inventory of critical supplies.”

•  From the Seattle Times:

"In a step toward normalcy, two popular Seattle farmers markets — the University District and Ballard markets — will reopen this weekend, but with new rules, and a request that shoppers take an oath.

"The markets, which had been closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, will be open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

"The reopenings are part of a partnership among the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance (NFMA), Public Health Seattle-King County, the city of Seattle, and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office."

The rules include:  "Modified layouts to ensure 6 feet to 10 feet between vendor booths to allow for greater circulation and distance … Limited market entrances to control capacity and foot traffic … Hand sanitizer provided at Market Manager tents, with public hand washing stations available in the markets … No sampling or prepared food until further notice … No music, entertainment, cooking demos, or public seating areas."

Baby steps.  But welcome.

•  In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reports that "Best Buy will furlough 51,000 store employees in the U.S., or about 40% of its total workforce, as its stores remain closed aside from curbside pickup.

"The Richfield-based retailer's sales were up 4% heading into stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic — and surged 25% in one mid-March week as consumers prepared to hunker down and rushed to buy computers, keyboards, webcams and freezers.

"But while Best Buy continues to see strong demand for products, it said Wednesday that sales have plummeted 30% in the last month since stores have closed to the public."

•  The  Financial Times reports this morning that Amazon is closing its warehouses in France for four days "as it races to comply with a court order to limit its sales to essential products, following a high-profile battle with a French union over protections against Covid-19 for its employees."

A French court this week ordered Amazon only to ship products deemed "essential" during the coronavirus pandemic "until it did a systemic assessment of worker safety at its warehouses."

That order, FT writes, "followed inspections by the government's worker safety regulator and other watchdogs, which found problems at five of Amazon's six warehouses, according to Le Monde newspaper, including workers being unable to respect social distancing rules, and a lack of hand sanitisers."

FT notes that "the dispute comes as Amazon workers in Italy, the US and the UK have also raised concerns about whether it is possible to practise social distancing and hand washing in the massive warehouses. French labour law gives employees more protections than they have in places such as the US, so unions have used the courts to press for more action against Covid-19."

Amazon reportedly will ship products into France from other countries, and will allow third-part vendors to sell in France on its site as long as they handle their own fulfillment for the time being.

The reaction from the French public has been predictably split (and, I suspect, would be replicated in other markets if Amazon had to curtail its operations for any period of time).  On the one hand, people celebrated a victory for labor interests … but other people went on social media to ask, where do we shop now?

The simple reality is that while Amazon is a for-profit company that is a shining example of modern American capitalism, it also has become a kind of public utility in terms of its ubiquity and the expectations of its customers.  That may ultimately be an uneasy tension that is hard to resolve.

•  The Associated Press reports that TV cooking show host Rachael Ray is responding to the pandemic by taping a new show, “#STAYHOME With Rachael” two days a week from her home in upstate New York.

According to the story, "She wears sweats and no makeup, cooking low-budget meals based around pantry staples like chickpeas and pasta, offering a refreshing peek into her kitchen — she misplaces the garlic sometimes — and a comforting smile.

"'This is a weird time. I can’t say there’s a silver lining ... but there are found moments every day,' she said at the start of the first at home show.

"She recently announced her organizations will donate $4 million to several charities including food banks and relief funds for laid off restaurant workers, saying she wanted to “help people more than just, 'hey, here’s three things you can do with canned tuna’."

•  The Wall Street Journal reports that you can add the Tour de France to the list of sporting events delayed by the pandemic.  Organizers announced yesterday that it will be delayed two months, with the Nice-to-Paris event now scheduled for August 29-September 20.

The story points out that "the dates are more aspirational than etched in stone. Holding the race in August assumes the absence of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and that the French government will still be on board by then.  But the Tour insisted that it could not imagine outright cancellation. In the race’s 117-year history, only the two World Wars have prevented it."

But right now, the Journal writes, "Imagining a three-week bike race that draws 10 to 12 million fans to the roadsides is harder for France right now than picturing bread without a crust. The entire country is under lockdown until May 11 and cycling more than a kilometer from your apartment is banned. Travel from abroad is suspended until further notice. And the peloton itself, with more than a hundred cyclists riding, breathing and spitting in close quarters, could be considered a germ-laden mass gathering."

•  Finally, a lovely story from the Seattle Times about 96-year-old James Thompson, a World War II veteran who, when he contracted the Covid-19 coronavirus, was given such small odds of surviving that he was moved into comfort care, not intensive care.

But after a lifetime of experiences that has given him a plethora of stories to tell, Thompson wasn't quite done … and now he is out of the hospital.

"“He’s a tough old (bleep),” says his son Jim Jr. “Plus keep in mind what’s important here, which is that now he’s got one more story to tell.”

You can read the piece here.