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 United States, there now have been 1,881,256 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, resulting in 108,062 deaths.  There also have been 646,260 reported recoveries.

Globally, there have been 6,469,868 confirmed coronavirus cases, 382,822 fatalities, and 3,079,601 reported recoveries.

•  Bloomberg writes that "as thousands of stores and restaurants across the country reopen with shutdown restrictions easing, Americans are discovering a reshaped shopping experience. Along with all the plexiglass shields and social-distancing signs, comes the rapid adoption of contact-less checkout. This is safer for employees and customers, while also forcing the evolution of a U.S. retail industry that has woefully trailed much of the world in technology."

The story goes on:  "The traditional checkout experience - marked by cashier banter, scanning items, pressing a pin pad or handling cash - was fading before coronavirus arrived in America, and the outbreak has only quickened its demise. Mobile apps are increasingly being used in stores to place orders, get questions answered via chat and pay. To avoid any contact, more customers are opting for delivery or curbside pickup … This shift will speed up purchases and let employees help consumers, instead of scanning items and swiping credit cards. It may also get customers in and out more quickly at a time when retailers and restaurants are required to reduce capacity as part of social-distancing measures."

A paradigm of this new approach is said to be Starbucks, which has been pioneering in its approach to app-based ordering and payment.

While many of the new technologies are pricey, the story suggests, "this can reduce labor costs by lowering the need for cashiers and making existing employees more productive."

•  From LiveScience:

"Social distancing, face masks and eye protection all appear to reduce the spread of COVID-19, in both health care settings and the general community, according to a new review commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

"The review found that keeping a distance of at least 3 feet (1 meter) from other people lowered the chances of coronavirus infection or spread by 82%, and keeping a distance of 6 feet (2 m) could be even more effective.

"Wearing face masks and cloth face coverings was also linked with COVID-19 protection for the general public; the same was true for health care workers, but N95 masks provided greater protection in health care settings than other types of masks. Eye protection, which people perhaps tend to think about less than nose and mouth protection, may also provide additional benefits in both community and health care settings, the authors said.

"However, the authors note that the findings on face masks and eye protection are based on limited evidence. And overall, none of the practices examined in the study fully protected against COVID-19."

•  In Texas, H-E-B has announced that while it still encourages customers to wear masks when in its stores, it no longer will be a requirement.

Employees and vendors still will be required to wear them.

In its statement, H-E-B said, "The CDC, State of Texas, and local health officials strongly recommend the use of masks or facial coverings in public spaces. As Texans Helping Texans, we wear masks to keep each other and our families safe. Social distancing, wearing masks, proper hand washing, and sanitization are all things we do to help keep Texas healthy."

At the risk of annoying my friends at H-E-B, if there ends up being a second wave of the coronavirus, it is going to look like making masks optional is a policy that is all hat, no cattle.

•  The New York Times reports on how "clean" is the new keyword in the hospitality business:

"According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, an industry group, the coronavirus outbreak has cost hotels in the United States more than $23 billion in room revenue since mid-February. As these properties prepare for a new operational reality — one that must balance federal, state and local laws and consumer anxiety about getting sick — the world’s largest hotel companies have all come forward in recent weeks to announce new cleaning playbooks."

The Times goes on:  "Program names riff on the hottest word in hospitality right now: clean. There’s Hilton CleanStay, Choice Hotels’ Commitment to Clean, Best Western’s We Care Clean, Omni Safe & Clean and IHG Clean Promise. Four Seasons has Lead With Care, Wyndham has Count on Us, Mandarin Oriental has We Care, Rosewood has Commitment to Care. Marriott launched a Global Cleanliness Council; Hyatt, a Global Care & Cleanliness Commitment. Topping it off is the American Hotel & Lodging Association’s Safe Stay, a list of general industry recommendations."

And:  "Although there are no hotel-specific disinfection guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the agency’s general Covid-19 resources — including everyday steps for employers and best reopening practices for businesses — has offered a foundation for hotels as they’ve sought to create their own. Many of the new cleaning plans include a consultancy with a leading medical organization, products and technologies from Ecolab (a major hygiene and safety company), some element of social distancing, increased disinfection of guest rooms and public spaces, and a commitment to procure and test new technologies like robots and ultraviolet light."

•  Another one bites the dust…

The New England Produce Council (NEPC) announced yesterday that its 2020 Produce Floral & Food Service Expo, originally scheduled for late August in Boston, has been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic and Massachusetts guidelines that made the gathering problematic.

The Expo has been rescheduled for Aug. 25, 2021, at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.

•  The New York Times has a story about some of the items that seem to be popular in a pandemic reality…

"Staring down the barrel of a long, hot summer — with vacations on hold and many camps, playgrounds and public pools closed because of the coronavirus — homeowners are hunting for creative ways to stay cool, active and sane.

For some, not having to pay for camps or vacations means more money to spend on other things.

"Landscapers and retailers say sales of gardening soil, mulch and firewood — for fire pits — are soaring. Trampolines are hard to come by. And swing sets at one large Long Island distributor that has been taking orders online and by phone, Backyard Solutions, have been out of stock since March … And then there are the pools.

"High-end in-ground varieties remain in demand among homeowners with deep pockets and the luxury to wait months for permits and construction.

"But it is the aboveground versions that are the hottest items at many pool stores, both because of their relative affordability and ease of installation."

Just over the past six weeks, the story says, "Google searches for aboveground pools have climbed steadily, outpacing the number of inquiries each spring for the last five years by about 300 percent."

•  Also from the New York Times, a story about the impact of the coronavirus on commercial real estate:

"Before the pandemic shut down businesses, a robust economy had powered a building boom, sending office towers skyward in urban areas across the United States. The coronavirus outbreak, though, has scrambled plans and sent jitters through the real estate industry.

"Skyscrapers scheduled to open this year will remake skylines in cities like Milwaukee, Nashville and Salt Lake City. Office vacancy rates, following a decade-long trend, had shrunk to 9.7 percent at the end of the third quarter of 2019, compared with 13 percent in the third quarter of 2010, according to Deloitte.

"Developers were confident that the demand would remain strong. But the pandemic darkened the picture."

Suddenly, everybody seemed to be working from home.  Major companies have said that many of their workers can continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  And experts have suggested that the pandemic could reshape the role of the office in American life - not eliminating it, but forcing a rethinking of how it is used and populated.

The Times goes on:

"The question facing the owners of office towers is: Will anyone still want the space when coronavirus crisis fades?

If the economic pain drags on, there could be long-lasting changes to the way people work and how tenants want offices to be reimagined, said Joseph L. Pagliari Jr., clinical professor of real estate at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Some of the changes — like more spacious elevators — could be costly to put into place, he said.

"The pandemic could be a 'pivot point,' Mr. Pagliari said, and that would be bad news for building owners. The office towers were designed to be “best in class,” he said, but the pandemic has suddenly made their most salable amenities — common areas, fitness centers and food courts — into potential liabilities.

"The economic crisis could also spur high interest rates on debt, which would cause building values to fall, Mr. Pagliari said. That may happen even if the crisis diminishes in the weeks ahead."

•  And finally…

It was totally cool that Steve C. Smith, CEO of Food City, decided to rename the NASCAR Cup Series race that the company long has sponsored as the Supermarket Heroes 500.

The Bristol Herald Courier quoted Smith as saying, “For the last 76 days, our country has been in really uncharted territory with this COVID-19 pandemic.  Like our counterparts throughout this great nation, our dedicated team of associates have gone above and beyond the call of duty to meet the needs of our customers and the communities we serve.

"We’re proud to have this opportunity to honor supermarket heroes around the country for their hard work and dedication."