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 1,035,765 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 59,266 deaths and 142,238 reported recoveries.

Globally, there have been 3,149,108 coronavirus cases, with 218,385 fatalities and 962,763 reported recoveries.

CNN reports that some researchers believe that the mortality rate actually could increase in coming weeks:  "One model frequently cited by the White House coronavirus task force has upped its predicted death toll again, this time projecting 74,000 Americans will lose their lives to the virus by August. 

"The projection was adjusted because of longer peaks in some states and signs that people are becoming more active again, according to Dr. Chris Murray, director of the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

"Last week, the model projected 67,641 deaths from Covid-19."

•  Online consultancy Brick Meets Click reports that April online grocery sales were up 37 percent to $5.3 billion compared to the previous month, an increase driven by a 33 percent in crease in the number of orders and a slightly higher average transaction size ($85 from $82).

•  The Washington Post reports on a new poll conducted in conjunction with the University of Maryland saying that "nearly 3 in 5 Americans say they are either unable or unwilling to use the infection-alert apps under development by Google and Apple, suggesting a steep climb to win enough adoption of the technology to make it effective against the coronavirus pandemic."

The Google-Apple initiative would create a smartphone application that "would notify users who had come in close contact with a person who tested positive for covid-19," an app that is positioned "as a way to enhance traditional forms of contact tracing to find potential new infections and help make resumption of economic and social activities safer in the months ahead."

Among the issues getting in the way of adoption are a) a general distrust of big technology companies, b) concerns about privacy violations, c) and the fact that one in 6 Americans don't have smartphones.  The demographics on people without smartphones tends to skew older, and it is older people at greater risk for contracting the coronavirus.  Fifty-three percent of those 65 or older who were polled said they do not have smartphones, with the percentages even higher in people 75 and older.

The poll also reflected a greater willingness by Democrats, who tend to be more concerned about the pandemic, to use the app, than Republicans, who tend to express fewer concerns about it.

•  Reuters reports that the great 2020 toilet paper shortage may be about to fade into memory.

According to the story, " U.S. consumers have begun spotting rare Quilted Northern and Charmin toilet paper rolls on store shelves across the United States, as stocks start building after weeks of severe shortages … Empty shelves were still a problem at nearly half of American grocery stores as of mid-April, but supplies were markedly more plentiful than they had been during the prior week, according to the consumer products data tracker NCSolutions."

Reuters writes that "store checks last week showed toilet paper was approaching normal stock levels after being 'deeply deficient for over 50days,' said Burt Flickinger, managing director of consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, adding that it was the first week his firm saw adequate levels of shelf stock."

The higher supply levels are at least in part because of increased production by manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble and Georgia Pacific.

It has taken several months to get there, but there's no question that some level of normality is returning to the supermarket shelves that I'm seeing on a regular basis.  (There still are some weird outages - like Cascade dishwasher detergent, Thomas's Whole Wheat English Muffins and Original Goldfish - that seem to cut across a lot of stores.)  But it is not hard to imagine that once we get past Memorial Day, there will be even greater normalcy.

That said, I do think there will be continuing and completely justified consumer concerns about what might happen in the fall if we get a resurgence of the coronavirus, combined with the regular flu.  And what happens if we have a bad hurricane season on top of it all?  All of this could add up to continued stocking up in certain categories by people who can afford to do so and have the room to keep extra supplies.  Retailers and suppliers need to be prepared.

•  From ZDNet:

"There may not be many brick-and-mortar retailers that make it out of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's safe to say Target will emerge stronger thanks to decisions it made in 2017.

"Here's what happened in 2017: Target bought Shipt for $550 million just a few months after buying Grand Junction for its supply chain and delivery platform. Grand Junction gave Target a platform and transportation and supply chain analytics and Shipt gave it foot soldiers to deliver locally.

"You can pretty much name the retail standouts in the pandemic. Amazon is an obvious winner. Walmart is a go-to store due to groceries as well as staples. Costco enjoys a similar position. And Target has shined with its own spin that revolves around staples, food, supplies and delivery that puts it on par with the likes of Amazon."

I think it is fair to say that Target was defining a "new normal" for itself even before there was broad public knowledge about the pandemic - which means that not only was it well positioned to deal with current issues, but it also has made its strategic investment decisions for the future.  There seems to be no ambiguity within Target about what it thinks the center of the target is.

•  Variety reports that California Gov. Gavin Newsom said yesterday that Stage 3 of the state's reopening process is “months, not weeks” away.

Stage 3 in the process affects movie theatres, hair salons, nail salons, gyms, and churches, "though with modified practices to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Sporting events could also resume, although without spectators."

The story notes that "California is taking a far more cautious approach than some other states, especially in the South, which have already allowed theaters to reopen. Theaters in Georgia were given the green light on Monday, while theaters in Texas are allowed to reopen this Friday."

•  From the Boston Globe:

"Warning that Massachusetts is still in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Charlie Baker announced Tuesday that he is extending his order closing non-essential businesses and his stay-at-home advisory for residents until May 18. The measures had been slated to expire on May 4.

"The announcement came as the heartbreaking toll of the pandemic continued to rise, with 150 newly reported deaths bringing the total to 3,153. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases also rose by 1,840 to 58,302. A total of 254,500 people in the state have now been tested, the Department of Public Health reported.

“I know pushing these dates back a couple of weeks is probably not what many people want to hear,” Baker said at a State House news conference. “We all look forward to stepping in front of this podium to tell you that we’re starting to open for business. I know that we’ll get there soon, but we have to be smart about how we do it and recognize and understand that there are risks associated with going back too soon."

•  From CNBC:

"Best Buy said it will gradually reopen its doors to customers with in-store consultations by appointment.

'Starting in May, the company said it will allow shoppers to schedule a time to meet with a dedicated sales associate to talk about technology needs, discuss a potential purchase of a kitchen appliance or more. It will begin by offering the service at about 200 of its 1,000 U.S. stores, the company said in a news release. 

"Best Buy’s CEO Corie Barry sent an email to customers Tuesday afternoon, saying the retailer will also resume in-home delivery, installation and repairs — but with new safety precautions. Those services will return in early May."

•  The Hill reports that "workers from corporations are planning a walkout Friday, including employees from Amazon, Walmart and FedEx.  The workers are seeking better health and safety standards as well as hazard pay while working during the coronavirus pandemic."

According to the story, "The Friday demonstrations will also request protective and cleaning equipment and full disclosure on the number of infected cases in company facilities.

"The protest would result in employees of the listed businesses calling in sick from work or stepping out during their lunch break. At the same time, some union members will reportedly join workers outside warehouses and storefronts in support of the strikes."

•  The Wall Street Journal reports that some school districts around the country "are giving up on remote learning and ending the academic year early, after concluding that it was too cumbersome for teachers, students and parents.

"Washington, D.C., as well as parts of Georgia, Texas and elsewhere plan to end a week to several weeks early.

"Schools have struggled to launch remote learning for more than 50 million children across the country during the coronavirus pandemic in the largest experiment in remote learning ever. Among the issues they’ve encountered, not all students have internet access or have parents available to help, causing concerns about inequity.

"As a result, many districts haven’t required schoolwork be completed or graded. Student participation, when schools are even able to measure it, has often been below regular attendance level."

Living with two school teachers, I have some small experience with this … and I think it is extraordinary the degree to which they - having had virtually no experience with online education (except for my daughter, who took a couple of college classes that way and found them to be wholly unsatisfying) - have managed to reinvent themselves in fairly short order and learn to use the technology.  Neither would suggest that online education can or should replace the classroom, but they strike me as having been amazing.

There are going to be a lot of  tough decisions that a lot of school districts are going to have to make, especially as communities facing tax shortfalls try to decide where they are going to make cuts.  (Betcha the term "austerity budget" will start to get used a lot by school boards and town councils.)  I just hope we don't forget how important education is to the nation's ability to compete on a global scale.  It isn't just a budget expense, but an investment that will determine the nation's future … and when we think about bail-outs and loan forgiveness, I'd like to think that the nation's schools are included in the conversation.

For that to happen, though, citizens/taxpayers have to make their priorities known.

•  The New York Times reports that "Simon Property Group, the biggest operator of malls in the United States, has come up with a game plan for reopening 49 shopping centers across 10 states starting on Friday."

According to the story, "Security officers and employees will 'actively remind and encourage shoppers' to maintain a proper distance from others and to refrain from shopping in groups. Food court seating will be spaced to encourage social distancing, and reusable trays will be banished. Play areas and drinking fountains will be temporarily closed, mall-provided strollers won’t be available and, in restrooms, every other sink and urinal will be taped off. Regular audio announcements will be made 'to remind shoppers of their part in maintaining a safe environment for everyone'."

The Simon game plan, the Times writes, provides "a glimpse of how the broader American shopping experience is likely to look as the country begins to slowly reopen. But the success of such an approach depends largely on whether retailers will also decide to quickly reopen stores and whether the public will feel comfortable going to malls when tests for the virus remain difficult to get."

•  BuzzFeed News reports that "Starbucks will begin reopening cafés for to-go service in the US beginning in May, the company told investors today. By early June, Starbucks expects to reopen 90% of its company-run locations in the US … stores will ask customers to download the Starbucks app and order ahead so they can 'pick up and go' at the store. Starbucks will also be available for delivery on Uber Eats. All workers will have their temperatures checked as part of new safety measures."

Starbucks yesterday also reported that its Q2 revenue fell to $6 billion from $6.31 billion in the year-ago period.  The company reported Q2 net income of $328.4 million, down from $663.2 million in the year-ago period.