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    Published on: March 25, 2020

    Tom Furphy & Kevin Coupe have a wide ranging conversation about how retailers need to prepare for a future not dominated by a pandemic, but in which fundamental structural changes have taken place in the food and retail industries.  Plus, Tom provides an update from his Seattle home base about how the city is faring in the current environment.

    Content Guy's Note: The goal of "The Innovation Conversation" is to explore some facet of the fast-changing, technology-driven retail landscape and how it affects businesses and consumers. It is, we think, fertile territory ... and one that Tom Furphy - a former Amazon executive, the originator of Amazon Fresh, and currently CEO and Managing Director of Consumer Equity Partners (CEP), a venture capital and venture development firm in Seattle, WA, that works with many top retailers and manufacturers - is uniquely positioned to address.  Me, I just like hanging and talking with people smarter than I am.

    Published on: March 25, 2020

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

    •  Globally, there have been 434,983 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 19,607 deaths and 111,870 confirmed recoveries.

    In the US, there have been 54,968 confirmed coronavirus cases, 784 deaths, and 379 confirmed recoveries.  However, in the US experts say that the number of cases is being vastly under-reported because of the lack of available testing.

    •  CNN reports that the following states have announced stay-at-home orders designed to slow the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus:  California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

    In addition, CNN writes, "Several states have ordered all nonessential businesses to close, but stopped short of issuing official stay-at-home orders" - Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Kentucky.  In Alaska, officials "issued 6-foot public social distancing guidelines Monday. Businesses that can't abide by that guideline are required to close by 5 p.m. Tuesday."

    •  The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that "Trump administration officials on Tuesday urged anyone leaving the New York metro area to self-isolate for 14 days to avoid spreading the virus to other parts of the country, as novel coronavirus cases in the region continued to sharply rise … Ambassador Deborah Birx, special representative for global health diplomacy, said 60% of all new virus cases in the U.S. were coming from New York, which has sharply increased its levels of testing in recent days. Overall, the U.S. surpassed 55,000 confirmed cases Tuesday."

    •  From the Washington Post:

    "President Trump on Tuesday said he hopes the nation’s dramatic response to the coronavirus pandemic will be scaled back within weeks to revive the economy and pack churches by Easter Sunday — an aspiration that was largely panned by public health experts and many elected leaders, including Republicans."

    The story quotes the President as saying during a Fox News town hall broadcast that "I would love to have the country opened up and raring to go … Our people are full of vim and vigor and energy. They don’t want to be locked into a house or an apartment or some space.  It’s not for our country, and we are not built that way.”

    •  From the New York Times:

    "India’s prime minister ordered all 1.3 billion people in the country to stay inside their homes for three weeks starting Wednesday — the biggest and most severe action undertaken anywhere to stop the spread of the coronavirus."

    •  Good piece in The Atlantic about how "grocery stores have been one of the only respites from cabin fever. Despite all the lockdowns and social-distancing measures across America, people still need food. In the most restrictive states, the grocery store has become about the last place you can go where life is lived more or less as it previously was."

    Except, the story notes, that "not even grocery stores can keep up the facade of normalcy. As many health experts have feared, last week, reports began to trickle in of grocery-store workers coming down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. A Trader Joe’s employee in Seattle tested positive. So did a King Soopers employee in Denver, along with two Fred Meyer employees: one in Monroe, Washington, and one in Portland, Oregon. A worker at the Columbus Circle and Bryant Park Whole Foods locations in New York, through which thousands of people filter every day, tested positive as well."

    The pandemic "has put grocery-store stockers and cashiers in an impossible situation," The Atlantic writes.  "The country can’t simply shut down grocery stores. Along with pharmacies, they’re an important lifeline for homebound Americans. But even essential shopping can endanger low-paid workers who are not trained in pandemic preparedness and have little choice but to show up for work."

    You can read the entire piece here.

    •  From Fast Company, this similarly themed story:

    "The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a combination of sober public health measures and panicked personal responses that have remade the gig economy. With offices, bars, clubs, and convention halls closed, ride-sharing traffic has plummeted. But as more people hunker down to work and study at home, grocery and restaurant deliveries have exploded. The delivery business has shifted to a virus-era wartime economy, with orders focused on staples such as food, medicine, and toilet paper hoarding—prompting even Amazon to refocus deliveries to just essential goods."

    The story follows several delivery people as they do their increasingly hazardous work, and you can read it here.

    •  Excellent piece along the same lines in the Wall Street Journal, which starts this way:

    "Much of the American workplace has shut down, sending millions of employees home to wait out the coronavirus pandemic.

    "Among those still on the job are grocery-store clerks, prison guards and delivery drivers. 'Who would have ever thought that we would be on the front lines?' said Joyce Babineau, a 67-year-old supermarket supervisor in Dartmouth, Mass., a coastal village 60 miles south of Boston.

    "Ms. Babineau is in one of the groups deemed essential—men and women who carry on even as cities and communities shut down around them.

    "Workers from New Hampshire to California say they feel both duty and dread. They’re also glad to still be working. On every shift, they tend to basic needs in an unfolding disaster likely to be prolonged, widespread and perilous."

    You can read it here.

    People who minimize the seriousness of this pandemic disrespect these people, the risks they are taking … the danger in which they are placing their families and themselves.  Shame on them.

    •  Got this email from a Kroger spokesperson yesterday:

    "Our associates are on the frontlines, ensuring Americans have access to the food, services and products they need during this unprecedented pandemic. We are committed to protecting the health and safety of our associates.

    "We’ve let our associates know they are permitted to wear protective masks and gloves. There is a national shortage of personal protective equipment like this, and we fully support America’s health care workers having first priority to obtain the equipment they need. We are advocating to government officials at all levels for help securing a priority place in line for all grocery workers - after health care workers - to have access to protective masks and gloves.

    "We continue to enhance our daily sanitation practices, including cleaning commonly used areas more often like cashier stations, self-checkouts, credit card terminals, food service counters and shelves.

    "And, we are now installing plexiglass partitions at many cash registers, to further promote physical distancing. Many of our stores are beginning the installation process this week, and we anticipate every checklane having a partition, including pharmacy counters and Starbucks registers, within the next several weeks. In addition, we are installing educational floor decals to promote physical distancing at checklanes and other counters.

    "Additionally, we’ve adjusted store operating hours across the country to allow more time for our associates to rest, clean and replenish inventory.

    "Kroger has enacted Emergency Leave Guidelines, allowing paid time off for associates diagnosed with COVID-19, placed under mandatory quarantine and paid time off for self-isolation and symptoms as verified by an accredited health care professional. All eligible associates will receive their standard pay for up to two weeks (14 days).

    "For those affected by COVID-19, the organization has also made available additional resources through the Kroger Family of Companies Helping Hands fund to provide financial assistance to associates who face hardship due to COVID-19, including lack of access to childcare and for those considered higher-risk.

    "We believe all these steps will help to ensure the safety of our associates and help our communities to flatten the curve while at the same time meeting our obligation to be there for our customers."

    •  From the Triad Business Journal:

    "A Triad-based supermarket chain has found a way to restock with restaurant and hospitality industry employees laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    "Lowes Foods, headquartered in Winston-Salem, is targeting restaurant employees left jobless by the virus-induced closings in beefing up its workforce.

    "In the past week or so, Triad grocers have struggled to keep stores increasingly sanitized and shelves well-stocked as shoppers deplete their inventories with hoarding and high-volume buying. Additional employees are needed for stocking shelves, sanitizing stores and filling online orders.

    "Kelly Davis, marketing director at Lowes, said hiring laid off restaurant employees is an ideal fit. When restaurants re-open, the traffic at supermarkets should go down in accordance. Lowes stores get needed employees, and hospitality industry employees get needed temporary jobs."

    I repeat:  Brilliant.  

    •  Some people say that the coronavirus is no different from the run-of-the-mill flu, but just is being hyped by the media.

    The Wall Street Journal has this analysis:

    "The new coronavirus and the seasonal flu are similar in many ways. Both are respiratory diseases that spread through droplets of fluid from the mouth and nose of someone who is infected. Both are contagious, produce similar symptoms and can be deadly.

    "But there are some major differences. While both produce many of the same symptoms - fever, cough and muscle aches - and are particularly hard on the elderly, they come from two different families of viruses. People have more protection from the flu because there is a vaccine and they are exposed to flu viruses every year.

    "There is no vaccine yet to protect people against Covid-19, the disease caused by the new virus … Scientists haven’t yet established exactly how deadly or transmissible the new virus is. But so far the new coronavirus appears to be deadlier than the seasonal flu, which kills thousands of Americans every season."

    The story makes the entirely legitimate point that while the coronavirus mortality rate has been estimated to be between two and three percent, that is just an estimate … and when the history of this pandemic is written, it may well be below that.  But people are dying … the Covid-19 appears to be highly transmissible … and there is, for the moment, no treatment for vaccine.  Plus, we don't actually know how many people have it, because so little testing is being done.

    Doesn't sound like media hype to me.

    •  The Los Angeles Times reports that "major retail and restaurant chains, including Mattress Firm and Subway, are telling landlords they will withhold or slash rent in the coming months after closing stores to slow the coronavirus, according to people familiar with the situation.

    "In a brewing fight, chains are calling for rent reductions through lease amendments and other measures starting in April, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private … The stakes are high. Retail has a slew of big chains in turnaround mode. And if they do withhold payments, there would be a ripple effect. Landlords can’t afford to stop collecting rent for long, with many property owners sitting on loads of debt."

    Ripple effects?  No.  There are going to be multiple waves crashing down on the economy for years to come.

    •  USA Today has a story about how Walmart, Kroger and Albertsons all are "installing plexiglass barriers or partitions to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and protect both shoppers and store employees.

    "The protective screens will stand between a customer and a cashier so that any airborne droplets - either from a cough or a sneeze - will be blocked from hitting the person on the other side."

    The Boston Globe notes that Ahold Delhaize-owned Stop & Shop also is installing the barriers.

    The Tampa Bay Business Journal reports that Publix Super Markets also is installing plexiglass partitions at checkout.

    I do think that while these plexiglass barriers are being erected for good reason, companies have to understand that a) they are only temporary, and b) they cannot be anything more than physical protection.  Checkout people often are the only actual people with whom customers have any sort of interaction in a bricks-and-mortar store, and can be a differential advantage if they're effective and personable.

    I noticed that at Stew Leonard's they've made the decision to open only every other checkout lane as a way of maintaining distance.  While it does create lines waiting to be checked out, the customers I saw seemed okay with it.  We're all in this together.

    •  From the Associated Press:

    "With many workers idled because of the coronavirus, L.L. Bean is going to use its shipping hub to pack food for pantries across the state.

    "The outdoors retailer is partnering with Maine’s largest food bank, Good Shepherd. The company’s workers will sort and package food in boxes that Good Shepherd will ship to food pantries in all 16 counties … The arrangement will reduce Good Shepherd’s reliance on local food pantry volunteers, many of whom are older and should be at home."

    At the same time, the story says, "L.L. Bean is also looking to convert its Brunswick manufacturing center, which is temporarily shuttered during the pandemic, to produce medical protective gear like masks and other items to address a nationwide shortage."

    Because this is what great companies, run by good people, do.

    •  CNBC has a story about what people are buying during the pandemic:

    "Medical masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and toilet paper have flown off shelves in the U.S., as more people began to look to protect themselves and prepare for long stints isolated in their homes. But, those aren’t the only items that consumers are spending money on in stores and online.

    "In addition to medical supplies, such as cold medicine, thermometers and tissues, and items for the pantry, such as canned goods and bottled water, people have begun shelling out money for entertainment. Board games, puzzles and video games have become popular items … In addition to food supplies, people have been purchasing gloves, soap, diapers, water filters and jugs, bidets and painter’s tape, according to data analysis by Thinknum of Amazon sales from late January through the second week of March."

    •  The Portland Business Journal reports that New Seasons Market there, in addition to limiting how many people enter its stores at one time, also is "introducing 'a digital process' in the next few days that will allow customers to wait in their car or 'take a walk around the block at a comfortable distance' while they wait for access to the store."

    •  ABC News reports that "Hormel Foods announced it'll be giving away more than $4 million in special cash bonuses to its hardworking plant production team members.  Each full-time team member will receive $300 and each part-time team member will receive $150."  The story notes that management made the decision since during the pandemic, "employees at Hormel Foods have been working around the clock to make sure food stays on the shelves."

    •  Orlando Weekly reports that "Lakeland-based grocery giant Publix announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 among one of the company’s thousands of employees … the company said the employee worked at a store in Cumming, Georgia, which is just north of Atlanta. Rather than closing the location, Publix stated that they followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “completed a disinfection-level deep cleaning of the store … he company did not say when or if the employee will be able to return to work."

    •  From CNBC:

    "Nordstrom said Monday that it is suspending its dividend, halting share buybacks and has drawn down $800 million on its revolving credit facility, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic … The company is now targeting cutting expenses by more than $500 million this year, up from an initial savings target of $200 million to $250 million in fiscal 2020."

    Nordstrom added in its press release that, “while there is no immediate need to raise capital at the present time, [it] intends to evaluate accessing the financing markets and will look to raise capital, when and if the company deems it prudent, to further strengthen its balance sheet.”

    CNBC writes that "Nordstrom had previously announced on March 17 that it would temporarily shut its more than 360 stores throughout the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico for two weeks."

    •  CNN reports that "As students across the country adjust to learning outside of their classrooms, some states are preparing for the disruption to last the rest of the school year as the coronavirus outbreak continues.

    "Florida has canceled all tests for the year, Kansas has decided to keep schools closed, Arizona plans to announce the suspension of makeup days and California said parents should be prepared for their state to be next."

    National Public Radio reports that "Connecticut’s schools will remain closed until at least Monday, April 20, as the state works to contain rising counts of cases and deaths from COVID-19."

    I live in Connecticut with two public school teachers - my wife and daughter - and I'd bet that school buildings will be closed until September.  And I'd also bet that this will be more true than not for many districts and states.

    •  It isn't just school closures, as the Boston Globe writes:

    "Spring is traditionally a big time for high school juniors preparing for college, with SATs to ace and transcripts to perfect.

    "Many had scheduled campus tours in April to narrow their college choices and impress admissions deans with their in-person visits. Spring athletes planned to show off to college recruiters filling spots on team rosters and budding scientists expected to boost their admissions chances by taking home top prizes in high school robotics matches.

    "But the coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on that momentum and brought the usually hectic spring term of junior year to an abrupt standstill. High schools have been closed, tests canceled or modified, and college campus tours canceled, leaving many teenagers and their families frustrated and uncertain about the path forward."

    The story goes on: 

    "Last week, the College Board, which administers some of the major standardized entrance exams, announced AP tests will be available as 45-minute, online exams that may be taken at home. Committees are already at work selecting questions for the online exams, according to the College Board … SAT tests have been canceled through at least May 2, in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The College Board in a statement on its webpage said SAT tests scheduled for early June have not yet been canceled, but the organization 'will continue to assess its status with the health and safety of students and educators as the top priority'."

    I feel bad for these students.  They're getting an early lesson in adulthood and dealing with disappointment, as they face the likelihood that they will not have the graduations and proms and sporting events and theatrical productions that they expected to mark the coming months.

    They should consider, perhaps, the Ernest Hemingway line:  "Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is."

    •  This morning, it was reported that Prince Charles - who has been self-isolating in Scotland - has tested positive for coronavirus.  The British government says that he has displayed "mild symptoms" but otherwise "remains in good health."

    •From Portland, Oregon … the annual Waterfront Blues Festival - a staple of my summers in the city over the past eight years - has been cancelled for 2020 because of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

    In a statement, the sponsors said that "the safety of the community is our absolute priority. With attendees flying in from nearly all 50 states and over a dozen countries, the responsible decision is to cancel the event.

    "The Waterfront Blues Festival has been here for you, our fans, for 32 years, and the decision to cancel this year’s event was not taken lightly. To better ensure that we can get back together and celebrate next summer here in Portland, we must prioritize the wellness and safety of our community."

    •  It is a tough time for many businesses these days.

    But not for the office chair business, which is booming as people looking for comfortable seating while working at home.

    From Bloomberg:

    "With tens of millions of Americans suddenly working from home, staffers at companies that make and sell office chairs don’t have time to sit down … In the past two weeks, sales of Herman Miller Inc.’s Aeron chairs -- the gold standard of ergonomic workplace seating -- have spiked fivefold at Office Chair @ Work, while demand for Steelcase and other well-known brands has doubled.

    "Online searches for the term 'office chair' increased 150% between March 9 and March 20, according to web data provider SEMrush, mirroring the increased traffic in what Steelcase.Inc says it’s seen at its online showroom in recent weeks. Office superstore Staples says working from home is 'the new normal' for many."

    •  Another business that is, as my dad used to say, "cooking with Crisco," is the online video conferencing business … published reports sat that downloads of the Zoom platform increased 1,270 percent February 22 and March 22.

    Published on: March 25, 2020

    •  United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) announced that it has hired Jack Clare, most recently Chief Information and Strategy Officer at Dunkin' Brands, to be its new Chief Information Officer.

    •  Reuters reports that "Walmart de Mexico said on Tuesday that its chief financial officer Olga Gonzalez has resigned for personal reasons and will leave her post by April 30.

    "Milton Brandt, currently chief financial officer for the retailer's Central America operations, will become interim chief financial officer for Walmart de Mexico, known locally as Walmex."

    Published on: March 25, 2020

    Terrence McNally, the playwright whose best works included “Master Class” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” has passed away from complications related to the coronavirus.  He was 81, and a lung cancer survivor.

    The Variety obit notes that "McNally’s resume was notable for its range, barrier-breaking depictions of gay life, and interest in subjects such as middle-aged romance and opera considered taboo by the commercial theater. His career moved from farces like 'The Ritz' to thought-provoking, award-winning dramas such as 'Love! Valor! Compassion!' and 'Master Class'."  He also wrote the musical books for 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' and 'Ragtime.'

    Published on: March 25, 2020

    MNB reader Monte Stowell had a reaction to yesterday's video from Stew Leonard, Jr.:

    Seeing and listening to Stew Leonard blew my socks off. Being from the NW, I have only heard about Stew Leonard and his stores. After watching the video you posted today, I think it should be watched and copied from many of the executives in all chain stores, big and small to communicate what their respective stores are doing to make shopping in their stores a positive shopping experience. Not everyone has the folksy touch of Stew Leonard, but the message from the top brass is that we care about you, our customer, and be truthful about what is going on in their stores. Thank you for posting Stew Leonard’s video. It should be shown in many college and university business classes as to what a difference great communication from the boss can do to enhance a companies image with the customer.

    On another subject, from an MNB reader:

    Thought I’d give you a first-hand report from Oregon of Costco’s 8-9am opening reserved for those 60+.  Unfortunately, the line began near the entrance and wrapped around the entire store!  Lots more cars arriving, getting out of the car, looking at the line, and giving up and leaving again.

    So I guess the lesson is arrive at 7 on Thursday and wait in line for an hour for the store to open.  (Don’t tell anyone.)

    P.S.  They ran out of TP at 8:37 today.

    Mrs. Content Guy is insisting that I go to our local Costco for the senior citizen hour tomorrow morning.  I am going, though grudgingly … though I have no intention of being there by 7 am.

    I will report on my experience.

    MNB reader Mike Springer had some thoughts:

    With you being up in the North East I realize you probably don’t get down to Texas much (especially now).  If the country is talking about Texas grocers, HEB or Whole Foods seems to grab the majority of the spotlight; however, there is group that was purchased by Albertsons a few years ago that has a great 100+ year old culture by the name of United Supermarkets/Market Street (Lubbock, TX based).  They do a phenomenal job of taking care of their team members and the local communities where they serve.

    I live in the Dallas/Ft Worth area where we have no shortage of retail grocery options…but few seem to stand out.  I only bring them up because they too have stepped up in this current crisis with increased pay to their “front line” employees, senior shopping days/hours, etc…  but seldom receive the publicity for it. 

    Keep up the great work!

    Thanks for reminding me … I know the company a bit and have been to their stores.  

    Another MNB reader wrote:

    Piggybacking on the flower donation story from Cathy Burns, Saturday we received a bouquet of flowers from our grandkids (well, from our daughter-in-law giving credit to the grandkids).  Along with the message were two hashtags:  #supportlocal #spreadthelove.  I thought that was a great way to support our small town local florist while brightening our day, so Monday, we sent a bouquet out adding the same hashtags.  My only experience is in small towns, and challenging times tend to bring out that community spirit.  So far we’ve had people putting shamrocks in their windows for families to drive around and kids can count, we’ve “chalked our walks” with people filling their sidewalks with cheery pictures and words of encouragement, and now we’re putting teddy bears in our windows so families can “go on a bear hunt” (driving or walking while complying with social distancing).   Again, my experience is small town America, but I hope some of that same spirit is alive and well in the bigger cities, too.  We can all use something to bring a smile to our faces these days. 

    And finally, this much-appreciated note from MNB reader Chuck Lungstrom:

    I want to thank you for three things today.  

    First for your link to the Neil Diamond song.  

    Neil Diamond is one of my favorite songsters since, well forever and hearing him sing live once again was simply awesome.

    Secondly, concerning Coronavirus.

    My wife is a cashier at the local Walmart.  Now Walmart has its share of negative stories, but there are also many good things that happen there.  While my wife is considered high risk, she absolutely refuses to miss work due to the Coronavirus stating that she has customers that seek her out and she doesn’t want to disappoint them.  Also, that people have to eat and deserve the opportunity to shop and purchase their food and someone there to help them. . . . so she works.

    Thirdly, for your Wake Up Call: Random Acts of Kindness. 

    While cashiering at the previous mentioned Walmart, a customer paid for his groceries and asked for $60 in change.  When handed his $60, he handed it back and told my wife to apply it to the customer’s bill that was behind him in line.  When the next customer (a father and teen age daughter) came up to her she told them about the previous customers generosity.  The teen age daughter immediately grabbed a $20 bill and said “I’ll be right back”. She went up to an elderly lady in another line and gave her the $20 to apply to her order.  Coming back to her father, she told him that the lady immediately began to cry saying that she really needed that help. 

    There really are some good people out there that are more than willing to give a helping hand whenever possible.  Graciousness lives on.

    It does.  

    Published on: March 25, 2020

    More details on something we're going to try on Friday, between 5:30 and 6:30 pm EDT - an MNB Virtual Happy Hour.

    You can join us on Friday by going to Zoom, and going here.  (Don't do it until Friday afternoon!)

    One of my favorite things over the years has been to, while traveling around the country, mention here that I'd be in this bar or that restaurant at a specific day and time, and invite MNB readers to come by to join me for a drink.  It's always been great fun … and now that I'm pretty much grounded for the duration, I kind of miss.

    So, we're going to do it virtually.  The folks at GMDC-Retail Tomorrow have agreed to sponsor and host it … Hopefully, you can put it on your calendar … choose a libation for Happy Hour … and then prop up your laptop or warm up your computer on Friday for a conversation and a drink.  (I'm probably going to go with great Oregon Pinot Noir … and I'm hoping the weather is good enough to light the fire pit.)

    Among the folks scheduled to join us will be Michael Sansolo, Kate McMahon and Tom Furphy - all regular MNB contributors.

    Some suggestions…

    •  If you have not used ZOOM before, you will be asked to download the app to your phone or computer to join the virtual room.

    •  Please try entering the virtual room at least 5 minutes ahead of time to ensure that your mobile device or computer is setup properly.

    •  Do not use two devices at once to enter the room. If you join by computer, please keep your mobile phone at a distance to avoid any feedback.

    •  When you are not speaking, please mute yourself to avoid unintended background noises that may disrupt the conversation.

    •  You have the option of joining with your camera turned on, or off. Either way, you can still connect with your audio.

    See you Friday!  Stay safe.  Be healthy.