business news in context, analysis with attitude

Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic and how businesses and various business sectors are trying to recover from it, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

•  In the United States, there have been 3,961,805 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 143,864 deaths and 1,850,988 reported recoveries.

Globally, there have been 4,876,330 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 613,722 fatalities and 8,930,270 reported recoveries.

•  The good news:  The Covid-19 coronavirus is not as lethal as Ebola.

The bad news:  It is more deadly than the flu, largely because it is more infectious.

According to the Wall Street Journal, "Health authorities and researchers have been working to gauge the death rate from the coronavirus to better understand the risk of the disease, estimate how many people might die and respond with the necessary public-health measures.

"Pinpointing that rate has been challenging, however, because a significant chunk of cases have few to no symptoms or haven’t been tested. The rate also varies depending on factors such as a person’s age and the strength of a jurisdiction’s health-care system."

•  From the New York Times:

"The race for a vaccine against the coronavirus intensified on Monday as three competing laboratories released promising results from early trials in humans.

"Now comes the hard part: proving that any of the vaccines protects against the virus, and establishing how much immunity they provide - and for how long."

The story says that all of the studies appear to be promising enough to move to Stage III trials.

The Times points out that "all of the developers asserted that their vaccines elicited antibody levels similar to those seen in patients who have recovered from Covid-19.  But scientists cautioned that the antibody responses in convalescing patients varied widely, and that even matching those responses did not necessarily guarantee any degree of immunity."

•  The Wall Street Journal reports that a variety of states and cities are tightening their pandemic-related regulations in the face of infection spikes around the country.

For example, "Amid a 'steady increase in new cases,' Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday said the city was tightening restrictions on some businesses. Starting Friday, bars must stop indoor operations, restaurants and bars must limit table sizes to six people and gyms must cap indoor classes … Chicago’s moves came one day after Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said his city is on the brink of returning to shutdown mode, as Los Angeles County saw its highest hospitalization rate since the outbreak occurred."

Meanwhile, "California added San Francisco County to its county watch list, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday. Cases and coronavirus-related hospitalizations have roughly doubled in San Francisco since mid June, according to health department data. California’s watch list has grown to 33 counties, and includes the majority of the state’s population. Mr. Newsom said last week that counties on the watch list would be starting the school year virtually."

And, "New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday the city was stepping up enforcement after a weekend in which crowds of unmasked people gathered closely together in Queens, ignoring social distancing guidelines. The city entered phase four of its reopening Monday, but Mr. de Blasio said the city is holding back on allowing museums, malls and indoor dining to reopen."

My argument is that this actually is the hard part for the areas of the country where things seem to be improving.  It is easy (one would think) to put restrictions in place when people are dropping all around you.  It is much harder to stay disciplined when conditions seem to improve, even though continued vigilance actually is the best way to beat the coronavirus down.

•  The New York Times writes that "while retail sales have mostly rebounded to pre-crisis levels and the stock markets remain buoyant, business leaders and economists still see serious cause for concern. Tens of millions of Americans are out of work. Important parts of the economy — including live sports, movie theaters and many tourist attractions — remain largely shuttered. Business districts are still primarily empty as people continue working from home. And as the virus spreads, new lockdowns could cause further economic disruptions.

"Already, there are signs the recovery is losing momentum."

However, the Times writes, "Many chief executives said they were broadly in favor of reopening the economy — arguing that it was vital for people to be at work.

'We will need to open up, but it has to be done safely and properly,' said Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase. 'And if we make mistakes along the way or if situations change, we should adapt and recalibrate'."

•  The Consumer Brands Association (CBA) is out with a new study saying that "stay-at-home orders across the country have driven increased demand for consumer packaged goods (CPG) …  The industry experienced 9.9 percent year-over-year growth during May of 2020, compared to May 2019."

The study goes on:  "The most recent results from May showed an uptick of CPG purchases of 4.1 percent over April. After the widespread panic buying in March that sent CPG purchases up 21.1 percent year-over-year, April and May data show some stabilization, though still well above pre-pandemic times. The uptick in May is driven by the need to replenish March stocks and is evidence that heightened demand should be expected throughout the COVID-19 recovery."

•  Southeastern Grocers, parent company to Winn Dixie, announced late yesterday a change in its company policy,  saying that it now will mandate the wearing of masks in its stores by both employees and customers.

In a statement, Joe Caldwell, director of Corporate Communications and Government Affairs, said:  "As we have navigated through the complexities and challenges of the pandemic, we have progressively shaped our operations and are continuing to update our policies to best protect all those who depend upon us. This unprecedented period requires a willingness to be adaptable and flexible to ever-changing circumstances, and we will continue to adjust as needed over time.

"The majority of our stores are under either a local or state government mandate, and given the continued rise of positive COVID cases in our communities across the Southeast, beginning Monday, July 27, we will be requiring masks to be worn by customers to help reduce the spread of the disease. Our communities count on us, and we are counting on our customers to show kindness as we go through these challenging times together."

Caldwell added:  "We believe that the enforcement should be placed upon our state and federally elected officials, and we will continue to work with our peers in the retail industry to advocate for this sensible mandate to be passed into law to remove the burden from employers and their heroic frontline associates."

It was just a few days ago that Winn Dixie said that it did not want to "put our associates in a position to navigate interpersonal conflict or prohibit customers from shopping in our stores," and for the moment would not be imposing a mask mandate.  Caldwell attributed the change to customer feedback, and denied the charge that it only was made after President Donald Trump called mask-wearing patriotic in a tweet.

The last thing Winn Dixie - or, for that matter, the vast majority of retailers - wants is to be seen as taking sides in political arguments, which is what mask-wearing, unfortunately, became.  While I've been pretty dogmatic on the subject, I completely understand that this stuff is hard;  retailers don't want to be seen as lecturing its customers about their behavior.

But these are extraordinary times, and retailers, like it or not, are being forced to take positions, make statements, and executive actions that define them.  More and more, this is an essential part of the branding experience, and retailers of all kinds can either embrace or resist it.   But to use a familiar phrase, resistance is futile … and probably counter-productive.

•  USA Today reports that "Gap Inc. will soon require masks in all of its U.S. stores, which include Old Navy, Athleta, Banana Republic, Intermix, Janie and Jack and its namesake Gap stores.

"The new requirement will start Aug. 1, the same day Target will start its nationwide mask mandate."

•  The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) yesterday went public with its request that western New York-based Tops Friendly Markets mandate the wearing of masks by customers in its stores.

"Simply, if our members are required to wear a mask while they work, the customers they serve should also be required to wear a mask. By wearing a mask, we protect each other, it's time Tops fully protects their employees and our members," the UFCW said.  "Tops wouldn't allow a customer to come into your stores without clothes on, they would swiftly be asked to leave. We are again asking that you adopt a chain-wide No Mask, No Service Policy. Your employees will greatly appreciate it, and 99.5% of your customers will love shopping at a store that is safe. This pandemic is far from over, and now is the time to get ready for the next surge."

•  From Politico:

"Florida’s largest teacher union sued Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to overturn a sweeping emergency order that requires schools to physically open five days a week, saying the policy bypasses local leaders and defies national public health guidelines.

"The complaint, filed in circuit court in Miami-Dade County, comes as the Republican governor sought to distance himself from the order, which has been targeted by teachers, parents and school leaders since it was issued July 6.

"The order has made Florida a political battleground over schools and the coronavirus outbreak as DeSantis and Corcoran followed the lead of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy Devos, who are pressuring states to fill classrooms with students in the fall. DeSantis in recent days has backpedaled, making it clear on Monday that the mandate wasn't his idea and putting his own education secretary on the defensive."

•  From the Wall Street Journal:

"As districts announce reopening plans, some parents are coming up with alternatives, such as online classes, outdoor programs or joining other households to create micro-schools. Families who weathered work-life-school challenges during the spring say they are daunted by the coming academic year - and a flurry of hybrids of virtual and in-person lessons, as well as children weary of masks - amid rising Covid-19 infection rates.

"A recent poll of 1,341 families by Pittsburgh-based consumer-research firm CivicScience found that more than one-third of parents with children ages 3 to 17 said they are 'not at all' comfortable with a return to school in the fall. In a recent Axios-Ipsos poll of 219 parents of children 18 and under, 71% said they felt sending them to school in the fall presented a moderate or large risk to their household’s health and well-being. Not all families can afford to design their own education program. Some households will see their income decline if one parent works fewer hours to manage academics."

•  Another casualty of the pandemic - Paris's iconic Tati, the discount department store that the New York Times describes as "a once-thronged wonder of Paris more visited than the Eiffel Tower" that "revolutionized postwar shopping in France and stamped its identity on the entire vibrant neighborhood of Barbès, on the edge of Montmartre."

The Times quotes the owners as saying that "Tati is a victim of Covid-19 … and sharply declining sales."  But, it points out, "the trends that have killed it go back much further," as the company failed to invest in the kinds of initiatives that would have made it relevant for the 21st century.

Instead, it seems, Tati became a kind of charming anachronism, with little place in the modern world, more relevant in memory than in reality.  Which in its own way ought to be a lesson for every retailer.

•  From Marketing Daily:

"In what is surely one of the more emblematic marketing efforts of a very strange year, Crayola has joined with apparel company Supara Group  to offer the Crayola SchoolMaskPack for kids who are (at least maybe) returning to school (possibly) next month.

"The package of five non-medical-grade cloth masks, available in a variety of Crayola crayon colors and designs, are adjustable. They come in different sizes for students of all ages, and adults, too. A five-pack is retailing for $29.99 and comes in a mesh-laundry bag so the masks can be easily tossed into washing machines.

"The company says they should last for six months.  The packs of masks also come with a little calendar so parents or kids can keep track of who’s wearing what and when."

•  The Wall Street Journal reports that one of the results of the pandemic is that dive bars are having to clean up their acts:

"During the first round of Covid-19 shutdowns, owners of bona fide dives and neighborhood bars used the time to improve things they couldn’t when people were around. They painted ceilings, blasted floors, refinished bars. Stools, ice machines, AC units, and toilets were replaced. They scoured to meet pandemic requirements.

The jukebox songs remain the same: Led Zeppelin, Patsy Cline, Sinatra, the Pogues. Yet there’s an elephant in the room. Something doesn’t seem, or smell, right. A whiskey, neat, is given new meaning."

Which actually creates a question:  "Are dive bars defined by the space or the people in them?"

I haven't been to a bar since late February, and the way things are going it may be next February before I go to one.  But I actually think that it isn't either-or … and that a great dive bar is a unique combination of the two.  That said, a little cleaning up isn't a bad thing.

•  Variety reports that in yet another blow to the summer movie season, Warner Bros. has taken Tenet, its much-anticipated Christopher Nolan-directed sci-fi thriller, off its release calendar.

Originally scheduled to open on July 17, Tenet  was twice moved to later summer dates.  Now, with Warner Bros. only saying that it hopes to open the movie later this year, the move seems to be reflect broad recognition that movie theaters as we once knew them will not be returning anytime soon because of public health and pandemic concerns.

•  From Bloomberg:

"For anyone tired of dodging coronavirus, sick of arguments over masks or just fed up with the home office grind, Bermuda has an offer: a year at the beach. The British Overseas Territory of 64,000, known for its pink sand shorelines and balmy climate, is offering one-year, renewable residency certificates for remote workers and post-secondary students. It’s pitching itself as a refuge as Covid-19 cases continue to climb in other countries and upend rules about where people can work."

I could totally go for moving MNB world headquarters to Bermuda.  This sounds wonderful.