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 as of this morning, there now are 2,356,715 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with 122,248 deaths and 980,367 reported recoveries.

Globally, there are 9,067,560 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 471,027 fatalities and 4,850,475 reported recoveries.

•  On Meet The Press yesterday,  Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said that he now believes that the coronavirus's progression will be different than he originally believed, and that it won't come in waves.

“I don’t see this slowing down for the summer or into the fall,” he said.  “I think this is more like a forest fire … I think that wherever there’s wood to burn, this fire is going to burn it.”

•  The New York Times reports that "nationwide, cases have risen 15 percent over the past two weeks, with the most significant increases reported in the South, West and Midwest.

California, the most populous state, reported 4,515 new cases on Sunday, setting a record for the highest daily increase in the number of infections since March. And Missouri and Oklahoma also broke records for the number of new cases reported in a single day … Across the United States, the number of new infections has steadily risen over the past five days after plateauing for the previous 80 days.

"At the same time, overall deaths have dropped dramatically. The 14-day average was down 43 percent as of Sunday."

The Times writes that "also on Sunday, the World Health Organization reported the largest one-day increase in infections across the globe. It said that there were 183,020 new cases, with Brazil (54,771) and the United States (36,617) accounting for the most new infections."

•  Bloomberg reports that "Florida reported a total of 93,797 Covid-19 cases on Saturday, up 4,049 from a day earlier, the biggest daily increase since the pandemic began."

The Seattle Times reports that "Gov. Jay Inslee said Saturday he would order Yakima County residents to wear masks while shopping or in other public places, a move that reflects what he termed an 'existential threat' posed by soaring case counts of the virus there … Yakima this spring has emerged as one of the coronavirus hot spots in the United States. There were early outbreaks in nursing homes as well as in fruit- and meat-processing plants, helping to fuel what is now a much broader outbreak. County hospitals are overwhelmed, and because of critical staffing shortages are transporting COVID-19 patients to Western Washington facilities."

 “Essentially this means, no masks no services. No masks, no goods,” Inslee said. “This is the next step. Frankly, it is not necessarily the last step to mitigate measures in Yakima County … we are going to be swamped with a tidal wave of COVID-19 if we do not act now.”

The Times notes that "in the past week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a similar directive requiring face coverings in public spaces for seven counties."

•  The Wall Street Journal reports that "demand for U.S. warehouse space is rebounding as upheaval from the coronavirus pandemic pushes businesses to retool their supply chains.

"Industrial real-estate activity, such as lease renewals and new leases, jumped 43% from April 15 to May 14 from the previous 30-day period, recovering more quickly than expected from the economic shocks of the pandemic, according to real-estate firm CBRE Group Inc."

According to the story, "The push for more storage space comes as retailers are re-evaluating their logistics networks in the wake of the upheaval during coronavirus-driven shutdowns … Retailers and food and consumer goods suppliers ramped up their e-commerce operations during that period after a surge of orders from housebound shoppers during quarantine. Companies are also securing new space to modernize their distribution operations, including locations near big population centers, for what they expect to be continued strong demand for services such as online grocery delivery."

•  CNBC has a story about how the pandemic has affected grocers' approach to foodservice.

"The deli and prepared food areas that used to draw traffic to stores and differentiate grocers have fallen from favor as customers worry about the spread of the coronavirus, cook more from scratch and try to limit their time in stores," CNBC says.  "Grocers are trying to revive those parts of the store with new approaches. At Publix, salad bars and hot bars have reopened, but employees dish out each item. Wegmans moved hummus, olives and more behind a counter where cheese shop employees fill orders. And at Texas-based H-E-B, some coolers carry prepared meals from local restaurants and a former food bar became an ice chest of beers.

"Companies and industry watchers say self-serve bars may be gone for awhile, and perhaps forever, even as consumers return to more typical buying patterns … Many Americans are still working from home, limiting social gatherings and juggling a lighter-than-usual schedule, too … That means consumers do not need a grab-and-go meal to scarf down between the office and a child’s soccer practice or cheeses or olives to put together a charcuterie plate for a party."

I'm intrigued by the idea that some retailers are going to be able to use the change in circumstances to actually increase their service levels, like turning hot bars into service counters.  This will affect labor costs, to be sure … but since most grocers are coming off quarters in which their sales were off the charts, maybe this is the moment to invest some of that money in initiatives that will be both relevant to their shoppers, but also have the potential to making the shopping experience more personal, more connected.

More from the CNBC story:

For some companies, closed salad bars have created new opportunities. California-based Chowbotics previously marketed its foodservice robot to hospitals and college campuses: Two places with a strong demand for healthy and tasty meals at all hours, the startup’s CEO Rick Wilmer said.

The robot, dubbed Sally the Robot, holds up to 22 ingredients. It can put together a range of menu items from a Greek yogurt muesli bowl to a pineapple blueberry upside-down cake. 

"Each robot costs $35,000, including training, maintenance and marketing, he said.

Customers order on the robot’s touchscreen, get a bowl and put it under the dispenser. Items typically range from about $5 to $11, Wilmer said.

"As coronavirus cases spread, business at colleges ground to a near halt and dropped off at hospitals, Wilmer said. The start-up looked around and saw the need at grocery stores, he said.

"He said Chowbotics has signed three grocery store deals, and it has pilots underway with others. He said it’s accelerated development of an app that allows customers to order on their own smartphones and scan a QR code at the robot rather than having to press the robot’s touchscreen."

A robot may not exactly provide the personal touch, but it could provide a novel marketing opportunity.  Not a surprise that some retailers would want to give it a try.

•  From the Associated Press:

"Tyson Foods is looking into reports that China’s customs agency has suspended poultry imports from a Tyson facility in the United States after coronavirus cases were confirmed among its employees … The announcement out of China on Sunday gave no details of the quantity of meat affected."

According to the story, "A Tyson spokesman said Sunday that the plant in question is in Springdale, Arkansas.

“'At Tyson, our top priority is the health and safety of our team members, and we work closely with the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to ensure that we produce all of our food in full compliance with government safety requirements,' wrote spokesman Gary Mickelson in an email to The Associated Press.

"He added that all global and U.S. health organizations agree that there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food."

•  From the Washington Post:

"As coronavirus cases surge in the U.S. South and West, health experts in countries with falling case numbers are watching with a growing sense of alarm and disbelief, with many wondering why virus-stricken U.S. states continue to reopen and why the advice of scientists is often ignored.

“'It really does feel like the U.S. has given up,' said Siouxsie Wiles, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand — a country that has confirmed only three new cases over the past three weeks and where citizens have now largely returned to their pre-coronavirus routines.

“'I can’t imagine what it must be like having to go to work knowing it’s unsafe,' Wiles said of the U.S.-wide economic reopening. 'It’s hard to see how this ends. There are just going to be more and more people infected, and more and more deaths. It’s heartbreaking'."

•  The New York Times reports that "Apple said it was temporarily closing 11 retail stores across four states amid a surge in the number of coronavirus cases in those areas.

"Stores will be closed in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina 'with an abundance of caution,' Apple said in a statement. The closings come about one month after Apple started reopening outlets in the United States. The company closed most of its stores globally in mid-March when the pandemic started to take hold in the United States."

The Times goes on:  "The decisions come amid growing outbreaks in much of the South and West. Officials in Arizona, California, Florida and Oklahoma all reported their highest daily case number yet on Thursday. And Texas became the sixth state in the nation to surpass 100,000 cases, according to a New York Times database. Cases there have doubled over the past month.

"As in much of the Sun Belt, testing in South Carolina has increased, but that alone does not account for the surge. About 14 percent of people being tested for the virus in South Carolina are positive, up from about 5 percent a month ago."

•  From the Washington Post:

"WeWork, the shared office space company, is making plans to change its shared workspaces in a post-coronavirus world, proposing new floor layouts, adding sanitizing capabilities and shifting office traffic flows.

"In an email to brokers and other industry clients, chief executive Sandeep Mathrani said the company will be posting new capacity signage for meeting rooms, applying 'every other' desk occupancies in private offices and enhancing cleanings while adding sanitization stations in common spaces. The ideas will start to be implemented over the next six weeks, he wrote."

WeWork was in trouble before the pandemic.  Hard to imagine that reducing capacity for the foreseeable future is going to be good for its bottom line.

•  From the Financial Times:

"Brookfield is chasing small retailers to pay thousands of dollars in rent on outlets that were forced to close during the coronavirus pandemic, even as the Canadian investment group skips payments on its mortgages and asks lenders for forbearance. Some shopkeepers who lease kiosks and small stores inside Brookfield malls have been told to pay rent for April and May, a period during which the properties were mostly closed, according to people familiar with the discussions and correspondence reviewed by the Financial Times.

"Several tenants who asked for rent forgiveness described being asked to provide extensive financial information, including their personal tax returns for the past two years. The merchants, who requested anonymity for fear of antagonising a powerful landlord, said Brookfield ultimately refused to waive the payments, although it offered to give them until the end of 2021 to come up with the money."

I've been sympathetic to the idea that it is tough for malls owners to simply extend rent forgiveness to retailers unable to open during the shelter-at-home period of the pandemic.  After all, malls have mortgages, too, and bankers may not be forgiving.  And so, I reasoned, it simply made sense for everybody toi work together on finding solutions that work for everyone, with the overarching goal being the the development of a strategy that will revive the business model that was in decline before the pandemic.

What Brookfield seems to be doing strikes me as unconscionable.  Typical, but unconscionable.

•  As economies reopen around the country, what's one of the first things Americans want to do?

Get a haircut.

Bloomberg reports that "as the U.S. begins to emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown, a trip to the stylist, among the first businesses to reopen in many areas, will be at the top of to-do lists for Americans desperate for a haircut and some social contact. That will make the return to barbers and salons a test case — a mirror on how society has changed as we try getting back to our daily affairs in the shadow of a virus we can’t cure or prevent.

"Hairstylists have always been more than just businesses for the customers they serve. In many communities, they’re a cornerstone of cultural, social and political life, where news and gossip are shared from the swivel chairs or under the dryers. So as we turn attention to our hair once again, the shops will be centers of a national conversation — about the economy, race, the upcoming presidential election and other topics."

•  On Friday morning, it was reported here and elsewhere that when the AMC movie theater chain reopens its facilities in mid-July, it would not require patrons to wear masks.  To do so, CEO  Adam Aron said, would be to take a political position that the company did not want to take.

By Friday afternoon, AMC changed its mind and said it would require masks after all.

No, mask, no movie.

Also last Friday, movie theater chain Regal reversed its earlier decision and said it would require masks as well, regardless of local ordinances.

I'm not saying that AMC listen to me, but … I was one of the folks who spoke out on Friday, saying that even though I see a lot more movies in theaters during a given year than the average American, I cannot see myself returning for the foreseeable future.  I also argued that the "we don't want to be political" argument was specious - masks are about science and health, not politics, and are a way of keeping our fellow citizens safe.

I'm glad they changed their minds.  But I worry that too many companies are thinking about the so-called politics of masks and not the way in which they contribute to the goal of slowing down Covid-19 spread.