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, have been 435,160 cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 14,797 deaths and a reported 22,891 recoveries.

Globally, there have been 1,529,084 cases of the coronavirus, with 89,411 deaths and 337,133 reported recoveries.

•  From a press released issued yesterday by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):

"Earlier today, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health issued new guidance under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act authorizing licensed pharmacists to order and administer COVID-19 tests that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized."

And HHS Secretary Alex Azar issued the following statement:

"Giving pharmacists the authorization to order and administer COVID-19 tests to their patients means easier access to testing for Americans who need it. Pharmacists play a vital role in delivering convenient access to important public health services and information. The Trump Administration is pleased to give pharmacists the chance to play a bigger role in the COVID-19 response, alongside all of America's heroic healthcare workers."

•  The Associated Press reports that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) "has issued new guidelines for essential workers, such as those in the health care and food supply industries. The guidance is focused on when those workers can return to work after having been exposed to the new coronavirus."

The guidance includes:  "Do take your temperature before work … Do wear a face mask at all times … Do practice social distancing as work duties permit … Don’t stay at work if you become sick … Don’t share headsets or objects used near face … Don’t congregate in the break room or other crowded places."

There also is related guidance for employers in essential industries:  "Do take employees’ temperature and assess for symptoms prior to their starting work … 

Do increase the frequency of cleaning commonly touched surfaces … Do increase air exchange in the building … Do send sick workers home immediately … Do test the use of face masks to ensure they don’t interfere with workflow."

•  CNBC reports that Panera Bread "is selling groceries as housebound consumers eat fewer meals from restaurants.  Customers are able to order breads, bagels, milk, yogurt, cream cheese and fresh produce as part of an initiative that began Monday … The grocery initiative was devised two weeks ago as a way to address consumers’ needs for groceries and to help Panera’s sales … Customers can order groceries on Panera’s app, its website or through Grubhub. Their orders can be delivered or picked up at a Panera location."

Another example of an approach that increasingly is being adopted both by independent restaurant operators and chains, as they look to find ways to do something to rescue themselves from plummeting sales and at the same time provide products and services that are relevant to their communities.

As a result, they may be reshaping their own businesses, and maybe even the broader food retail landscape for the long term.

•  The Los Angeles Times reports that "as stay-at-home orders swept across the country, shoppers rushed to grocery stores and stocked up on staples, among them eggs. This surge in demand has boosted egg prices, both nationally and especially in California, and probably will for some time."

The problem:  "There’s only a fixed number of eggs available on any given day — you can’t squeeze an unlimited number of eggs out of a chicken, and it can take months to buy more hens and build more coops for them. In the meantime, shoppers are buying extra cartons as they aim to limit grocery runs during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Plus, egg demand traditionally has been high during times of economic hardship, which means that those chickens may be busy for some time.

So what we all need is a crazy brother?  Remember the old joke?  "A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, 'Hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken." The doctor replies, 'Why don't you institutionalize him?'  And the guy replies, 'I would but I need the eggs'."

•  USA Today reports on how single-use plastic bags are seeing a resurgence in the time of pandemic.  While their negative impact on the environment has been much debated, leading to outright bans in a  number of states and communities around the country, the fear that the coronavirus could be more easily spread on reusable cloth bags has, at least for the moment, outweighed those concerns.

For example, "Oregon also has suspended its brand-new ban on plastic bags, and cities from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have announced a hiatus on their bans.

"In San Francisco, one of the first cities in the US to ban the use of plastic bags, the Department of Public Health issued an order preventing businesses from 'permitting customers to bring their own bags, mugs or other reusable items from home'."

I'm an enthusiastic user of cloth bags that I bring with me to the store, but I totally concur that for the moment, we have to step back from what I see as an ethical and responsible environmental position and adjust to the times.  What I'd like to see is a) some research done to see if the presumption about reusable bags spreading the coronavirus is correct, and b) a return to the reusable bags once the crisis has passed and/or the research confirms that this shift was a good idea.

•  From the Wall Street Journal:

"One was an executive chef in Milwaukee. One was a small-business owner in Oregon. One managed merchandise for touring musicians. These three newly out-of-work Americans have one thing in common: They are all recently applied to work at an Amazon warehouse.

"Amazon’s 100,000 job openings in its warehouses and delivery network are a rare bright spot in a U.S. economy that has been wracked by the shutdown of ordinary life, causing about 10 million people to apply for unemployment in March due to coronavirus-related layoffs.

"While numerous restaurant, hospitality and hourly workers have flocked to Amazon after being laid off or furloughed, the opportunities are also attracting seasoned professionals in traditionally white-collar jobs. Although some have years of training and experience, they are turning to the tech giant to make ends meet, even as they worry about their own physical safety and financial security."

Three things.  The story makes the point that the availability of work at Amazon distribution facilities is something that didn't really exist last time we went through a recession, certainly not to the extent that it does now.  So it'll be interesting to see how this affects an economic downturn.

But it'll also be interesting to see if it persists as a recession outlasts the pandemic crisis.  If the health crisis subsides, but the economic crisis remains, the level of business that Amazon does out of those warehouses may well decline, which will eliminate a lot of jobs.

And finally, it is important to remember that while working at Amazon warehouses is seen as a feasible option by a lot of folks, that doesn't alleviate the criticisms that the company is getting for how it is treating its DC employees and maintaining a healthy workplace.  A lot of questions remain to be answered.

•  Bloomberg writes that "Starbucks Corp. said that a sharp slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic will worsen before getting better, with financial impact extending as far as September.

"The company based its assessment on the tentative recovery in the Chinese market, Starbucks’ most important along with the U.S. The coffee chain went through social distancing and mandatory closures in the Asian nation earlier in the year, giving the company an early glimpse at how the situation would play out in the U.S. and elsewhere … While the outlook is dark for the time being, Starbucks is framing the future much as Nike Inc. did last month, saying its experience in China shows the financial suffering is temporary and can be reversed. There, Starbucks said recovery went at a 'slightly faster pace' in March and there’s evidence that its business will 'fully recover over the next two quarters'."

•  WCPO-TV News  reports that while "Kroger, CVS and Walmart are inviting sick patients into retail health clinics in the same stores where healthy people buy food, water and medicine," saying they "screen patients and follow CDC guidelines to guard against coronavirus spreading," there are concerns that "more should be done."

"Kroger told us only screened patients get in and The Little Clinics have 'separate air filtration systems from the rest of the store, which safeguards against germs potentially being spread around the rest of the store' … CVS said their clinics cannot test for COVID-19 and they give anyone with symptoms directions to doctors 'in a different health care setting' … Walmart did not answer requests for comment."

I think people shopping for food under these circumstances have every right to be concerned, and these stores need to be specific in their enforcement of rules that separate patients from customers.  That said, these clinics are designed to make health care more accessible, and especially now, that;'s what we need.  I look forward to the moment when these clinics all are able to offer coronavirus testing to anyone who wants it.

•  The New York Times reports on how "fans are fuming about being unable to get refunds for concerts that have been postponed, often with no rescheduled dates in sight. As they see it, ticketing outlets are being greedy at a time of crisis, holding billions of dollars in consumers’ cash that people now need for essentials."

A variety of lawsuits have been filed against the likes of Ticketmaster and StubHub, which fans believe have "switched their refund policies mid-crisis to avoid repaying consumers. Fans have drawn attention to the fact that Ticketmaster recently adjusted the language on its website. Whereas a few weeks ago, it said that people can get refunds 'if your event is postponed, rescheduled or canceled,' now it only lists cancellation as a basis for getting your money back, though it suggests there may be other circumstances in which refunds might be considered."

Both organizations have said the sheer volume of cancellations and postponements, and the vast network of people and companies involved in putting them together, has made it impossible for them to just issue refunds upon request.

The Times writes, "Even in the best of times, ticketing vendors are a common target for customer complaints. But the noise has started to bubble up to advocacy groups and attorneys general, posing a potential public-relations crisis for the ticketing industry."

Yes, I think it is fair to say that Attorneys General from a number of states (my bet is that New York, Massachusetts and California will be at the front of the line) will be getting involved, suggesting to the ticketing companies that they actually don't have  a lot of legal options here.

The blithe dismissal of consumer interests by these companies is appalling.  The problem if that if you want to buy tickets to most events, you have to go through one of them, which gives them an unfortunate level of power.  But in the end, you'd better look out for your customers or you'll find yourself treading a treacherous path.

•  The New York theater season remains on hold for the foreseeable future, as the Broadway League has announced that its members would keep their theaters closed at least until June 7, with the conventional wisdom being that they probably won't reopen until July 4 at the earliest.  It also is possible that the theater season may not resume until Labor Day.

The New York Times writes that "Broadway is not only an important center for the art form, but is also big business: The industry drew 14.8 million patrons last season and grossed $1.8 billion.

"The entire industry — like so many others — is on pause, at the cost of thousands of jobs and millions of dollars.

"Spring and summer programming has already been canceled in other sectors of the performing arts world — all five Edinburgh festivals, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival, and New York nonprofits including Lincoln Center Theater and the Roundabout Theater Company. In Britain, London’s West End theaters have canceled all performances through May 31, and in Canada, Toronto’s Mirvish Theaters have closed until June 30 'at the very earliest'."

•  Songwriter-winger Randy Newman ("Short People," "You've Got A Friend In Me," and about a million other songs and movie scores), brings his sardonic wit to a new song that he wrote at the request of a Southern California radio station about the pandemic.

The title:  "Stay Away."    And go figure, it is a kind of love story.