business news in context, analysis with attitude

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

•  In the US, there have been 1,408,636 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 83,425 deaths and 296,746 reported recoveries.

Globally, there have been 4,358,304 coronavirus cases, 293,236 deaths and 1,611,734 reported recoveries.

•  The Associated Press reports on testimony delivered yesterday to the US Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, warned against moving too quickly to open up the nation, arguing that this could result in extending the virus's impact and exacerbating the economic impact.

Fauci also argued that the death toll almost certainly is higher than being reported at this point, and refuted suggestions that coronavirus-related deaths are being overestimated.

•  Fox News reports that Kroger management, having decided to end its hourly "Hero Bonus" pay for employees on May 16, is in conversations with labor unions objecting the change.

The story notes that Kroger "announced the temporary bonus for its front-line workers in March as grocery stores saw a surge in demand for everyday items amid the pandemic."  Organized labor has started appealing to consumers to help it pressure Kroger to not pull back on the salary increases.

"In the coming months, we know that our associates’ needs will continue to evolve and change as our country recovers," a Kroger spokesperson told Fox News. "We continuously evaluate employee compensation and benefits packages. Our average hourly wage is $15 and with benefits factored in, like health care, the hourly wage is over $20."

Said it before and I'll say it again.  These jobs are no less essential, hazardous or stressful than they were three weeks ago, and retailers eliminating these pay bumps run the risk of appearing like they are cutting wages.  From the beginning, I've argued that bonuses would've been a better way to go - the money would've been the same, but the expectations might have been different.

•  Walmart announced yesterday that it "plans to provide another special cash bonus for all U.S. hourly associates to recognize them for their many contributions to communities across the country during this unprecedented time. This includes hourly associates in stores, clubs, supply chain and offices, drivers, and assistant managers in stores and clubs. The bonus will be $300 for full-time hourly associates and $150 for part-time hourly and temporary associates, and will add up to more than $390 million. Associates must be employed by the company as of June 5 to qualify, and it will pay out on June 25."

•  The Washington Post has a story about how the state of Nebraska, and the meatpacking plans operating there, have stopped providing numbers about coronavirus infections and related fatalities.

"In a change initiated last week," the Post writes, "Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) announced at a news conference that state health officials would no longer share figures about how many workers have been infected at each plant. The big companies weren’t sharing numbers either, creating a silence that leaves workers, their families and the rest of the public blind to the severity of the crisis at each plant."

The story notes that "around the United States, meatpacking plants have been associated with some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic: Of the 30 counties in the States with the highest per capita prevalence of the coronavirus last week, 10 are home to major meatpacking plants.  Of those 30 counties, four are in Nebraska."

The Post reports that "Ricketts has said the numbers can be unreliable because some people who have tested positive have given misleading information about where they work. He recommended that local health departments withhold the case counts unless they get permission from the plants.

"The company officials declined to share numbers, citing privacy concerns and the fast-moving nature of the virus. They note that they are implementing worker protections at their plants.  But workers and advocates say that without knowing how many infections have occurred at a plant, it is impossible to know how effective any such precautions have been."

This is exactly the kind of transparency that will reassure employees and customers about the dependability and trustworthiness of these companies, and confirm for voters that government is looking out for their best interests.

•  GeekWire reports that "Amazon is developing a robot that would roll through grocery stores and distribution centers, using banks of ultraviolet light to kill viruses on surfaces … It’s part of a technological show-of-force from the company, seeking to demonstrate its efforts to battle COVID-19 in the face of criticism from employees and others."

•  CNN has a story about the one continent where the Covid-19 coronavirus has not made an appearance - Antarctica.

"The region had a close brush with Covid-19 when outbreaks hit the final cruise ships of the season, but the virus didn't reach its frozen shores," the story says.  "And, because it's currently descending into winter, when it's completely cut off, it should stay that way for now.

"Although there's no official native population here - unless you count the many penguins, whales, seals and albatrosses - around 5,000 people, mostly scientists and researchers, currently reside in its 80 or so bases."

CNN notes that some 78,500 tourists were expected to visit Antarctica during the current season, "stations began putting restrictions on tourist visits early in the year, as the virus began to spread around the world and the region was later put into lockdown, with all tourist visits canceled."

•  Reuters reports that American, Delta and United airlines managements have instructed "flight attendants not to force passengers to comply with their new policy requiring face coverings, just encourage them to do so."

But the policy is potentially confusing.  The airlines have empowered employees to not allow passengers to board planes if they are not wearing masks, but once the flight is underway, they cannot require passengers to keep them on.

Flight attendants and crews are encouraged to use their "de-escalation skills" when faced with such situations.

I'm not normally a confrontational person in such situations, but I'm not sure how calm I would be if I were flying, wearing  a mask, but were seated next to some moron not wearing  a mask and coughing.  That would be pretty distressing … and I can imagine that in some cases, it all could get pretty ugly.

•  From the New York Times:

"Even as health experts working with the Trump administration warned a Senate panel on Tuesday against reopening the country too quickly, the U.S. retail sector is beginning to get back to business. As some states allow a handful of businesses to reopen and other regions charge ahead full throttle, it is an experiment for bookstore owners and other retailers attempting to strike a balance between staying afloat and keeping workers and customers safe … Among retail businesses, bookstores, especially smaller independent stores, face particular challenges as they navigate reopening. Many indies occupy cramped spaces with warrens of bookshelves, and serve as community centers and cultural outposts as much as retail operations. Book lovers often come in to linger, browse and chat with the staff about what to read next, all behaviors that in a pandemic are potentially life-threatening."

Of course, the real problem for booksellers is that there happens to be an online company that is pretty accomplished at book selling.  But traditional bookstores do have the advantage of a highly committed and even evangelical customer base … though it can only depend on those folks for so long.  They still have to be competitive.

•  The New York Times reports that "in the most sweeping sign yet of the long-term impact of the coronavirus on American higher education, California State University, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, said on Tuesday that classes at its 23 campuses would be canceled for the fall semester, with instruction taking place almost exclusively online.

"The system is the first large American university to tell students they will not be returning to campus in the fall. Most of the nation’s colleges and universities have gone out of their way to say they intend to reopen, but they are also making backup plans for online classes."

•  The Broadway League announced yesterday that theaters in New York City will remain closed at least until Labor Day, and the Hollywood Reporter writes that some experts think that Broadway could remain essentially closed until early next year.

The 41 top-tier New York theaters went dark March 12, and were originally expected to open on June 7.

It isn't just New York.  The story says that "in what could turn out to be a harbinger of things to come for many of the country's stages, Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, one of America's largest and most respected nonprofits, last week took the bold step of announcing that operations will resume with a compressed mini-season of just three productions running March-August 2021. That represents a massive reduction from the originally scheduled 11 shows, with a budget slashed from $31 million to $12.6 million. Those drastic measures make necessary allowances for the time required to build and rehearse productions, underscoring the complicated logistics for the theater sector of emerging from lockdown."

Broadway is an important economic engine for New York City, and so this tells us a lot about how the city - harder hit than almost any other place in the world - is going to manage recovery efforts.  (Other communities should pay attention, because NYC could end up being an leading indicator.)

•  FSR reports that Buffalo Wild Wings today is scheduled to "debut its first 'GO' concept in Atlanta, a restaurant specifically for to-go and delivery orders."

According to the story, "The 1,800-square-foot restaurant will have a walk-up counter, digital menu boards, and a small seating area with TVs to entertain customers while they wait for their order. The sports bar chain is seeking to create a frictionless experience, as well. Those who order ahead will be able to pick up their meal from a heated locker."

•  CNBC reports that "select venues at Universal Orlando Resort’s CityWalk will reopen Thursday.  The CityWalk shopping center will be open to the public from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, the company said Tuesday. Guests will be able to park for free and will be expected to adhere to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when visiting the area.

"Face masks will be required to enter CityWalk, and there will be temperature checks at the gates. Universal has also asked that visitors abide by all social distancing markers and signage. Guests will be permitted to remove face masks while eating.

"The Universal Studios Store will be open, as well as a number of merchandise carts.  Other shopping venues include Airbrush and Hart & Huntington Tattoo Company.

Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Red Oven Pizza Bakery and Voodoo Doughnut will be available for food orders. Each restaurant will have a limited menu and limited seating available.

"Hollywood Drive-In Golf will also be open. Blue Man Group, all nightclubs and Universal Cinemark will remain closed."

•  The BBC reports that Twitter has informed staffers that they can continue to work from home "forever."

According to the story, "The decision came as the social media giant said its work-from-home measures during the lockdown had been a success.  But it also said it would allow workers to return to the office if they choose when it reopens … It has allowed employees to work from home since March and doesn't expect to reopen its offices before September.:"

Google and Facebook have both said that employees can keep working from home at least until 2021, while Amazon has said at least until October.  But what we have here is companies, especially tech companies with different mindsets, re-evaluating their bricks-and-mortar needs in ways that could have enormous impact on communities where they were building and/or operating offices.

What we have to think about is how these shifts may be reflected in other consumer behaviors, like how they shop.

•  REI sent an email to members and customers yesterday saying that it has begun opening its stores, "just in time to celebrate our 82nd anniversary."

The email says:

"In some places 'opening' will mean curbside service for orders placed online. In others, our doors will open for a limited number of customers. In every case, we’ll be taking precautions for the health and safety of our employees, customers and communities. We’ll have health and safety procedures in place for our store teams, and clear guidance for you on how to shop or do curbside pick-up. We’ll also be closely following guidance from national, state and local authorities to make sure we’re operating in compliance with any restrictions in your area.

"We have made significant progress in all of these areas over the last month, and we are ready to begin expanding services in many of our stores. Our hope and expectation is that more than half of our stores will be open for curbside pick-up in time for our Anniversary Sale, May 15–25, and a small number of stores will be open for in-store services as well … We’re doing our part to make the curbside and in-store experience as safe as possible for everyone, and we need your help. When you come into our stores, our employees will be wearing face coverings, and we’re going to ask that you wear one too. It’s a simple thing that we can all do right now to take care of one another and, if you forget yours, we’ll have disposable face coverings available."

•  The New York Times reports that "when Patagonia announced on March 13 that it was temporarily closing its 39 stores and e-commerce business in North America because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was one of the first major retailers to take such a drastic step.

"The company’s chief executive thought the situation would last about a month."

Now, the story says, " the retailer that aggressively moved to close before any government shutdowns were announced is being very cautious in deciding how to open up again … Patagonia does not anticipate opening any locations for in-store shopping until June at the earliest and it’s prepared to wait until the fall or even early winter. Even then, it may decide to limit operations to curbside pickup, which it plans to begin offering at 10 stores on May 20."

CEO Rose Marcario says, "We’re going to be cautious about the way we open up — we’re not going to necessarily follow what the state decrees are.  There are some areas that aren’t as hard hit, but I don’t think you can assume those places won’t see a surge in cases if people stop social-distancing.”

The Times  writes that Marcario "believes 'the shape of retail will change.'  People will be more reliant on e-commerce and 'the return to walk-in retail will be slow'."

The story goes on:  "Despite the steep business decline that Patagonia is facing, Ms. Marcario believes the brand will ultimately benefit as the pandemic encourages people, particularly younger generations, to 'buy things that last.' The crisis has, in some ways, reminded people 'of the value of wild and open spaces and clean air and clean water and if we can channel that to some good, all is not lost,' she said."

In other words, no matter what, true to its value proposition … which is all consumers really can ask of the companies with which they do business.