retail 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, the confirmed Covid-19 coronavirus case count now stands at 10,288,480, with 243,768 deaths and 6,483,420 reported recoveries.

Globally, there have been 50,818,521 confirmed coronavirus cases, 1,263,144 fatalities and 35,837,940 reported recoveries.  (Source.)

•  The Washington Post makes the point that it took the US more than three months to go from zero cases to one million cases, while it only has taken 10 days to go from nine million to 10 million cases.

The Post goes on:

"Good news was hard to find. The country’s seven-day new case average was more than 100,000 for the first time. In five of the past seven days, more than 1,000 deaths were recorded … More than half of states reported a new high for their seven-day average of cases, including Maryland, for the first time since early May.

"The virus has been spreading fastest in the Great Lakes and Mountain West states, with North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin leading the way. For nearly a month, Ohio has each day set a new high in its seven-day new case average."

•  From the Wall Street Journal:

"The nation’s seven-day moving average of newly reported cases, which helps smooth out irregularities in the data, rose to 108,498 as of Sunday, the latest in a series of record highs and the second time over 100,000. The 14-day moving average was 94,917. When the seven-day average is higher than the 14-day average, it suggests cases are rising.

"As infection numbers rise, hospitalization levels are also climbing. As of Sunday, 56,768 people were in hospitals due to Covid-19, the largest number since July 29, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Intensive-care units are also dealing with an upsurge: 11,108 people were being treated in ICUs around the country as of Sunday, the highest number since May 12."

•  The Wall Street Journal this morning reports that "a vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE proved better than expected at protecting people from Covid-19 in a pivotal study, a milestone in the hunt for shots that can stop the global pandemic.

"The vaccine proved to be more than 90% effective in the first 94 subjects who were infected by the new coronavirus and developed at least one symptom, the companies said Monday.  The positive, though incomplete, results bring the vaccine a big step closer to getting cleared for widespread use."

•  Yahoo Life reports on an interview that was conducted over the weekend by the American Medical Association (AMA) with Dr. Anthony Fauci in which he talked about the progress being made with vaccines that could be used to treat the coronavirus, and what the prospects are for a return to some sort of normal.

"The issue with vaccines is actually good news in a time of considerable concern and stress about the outbreak," he said. "We have six candidates that the United States government is helping out with either in the development of, or in the facilitation of the testing of five of those six are already in phase three trial. And two of them, the Moderna and the Pfizer product started phase three trials on July, the 27th, they're fully enrolled."

Fauci went on:  "We hope that as we get into November and maybe in the early December, we get an answer as to whether or not one or more of these candidates are safe and effective. I'm cautiously optimistic that we will have a safe and effective vaccine. And then we'll be able to start distributing doses reasonably soon thereafter integrated fashion to individuals with the highest priority such as healthcare workers and people on the front lines."

And, he added, "There are two factors that are going to determine the degree to which public health measures are going to be playing an important part in protecting our country and the people in our country.  First of all, how effective would the vaccine be? And as importantly, how many individuals are going to opt to take the vaccine, because, you know, there is a considerable degree of reticence/skepticism about the vaccine that we need to overcome by transparency and messaging and reaching out to the community … But if we get a reasonably effective—75% effective vaccine and a substantial proportion of the population takes the vaccine, I think we're going to be going in the right direction towards approaching some degree of normality as we head into 2021—in the second, third and fourth quarter of 2021. So that's good news."

•  The New York Times this morning has a story about the business winners and losers that have emerged during the pandemic - some of them surprising.

"Some companies that had feared for their lives in the spring, among them some rental car businesses, restaurant chains and financial firms, are now doing fine — or even excelling," the Times writes.

"During recessions, consumers often decide to pull back and avoid large outlays. But this year, something different happened. Many Americans who did not lose jobs but were also not spending on travel and entertainment found themselves with more disposable income. The $1,200 stimulus payments from the government also helped.

"This has been a boon for companies that initially feared a deep recession. General Motors and Ford Motor, for example, rushed to borrow billions of dollars early in the year, expecting that car sales would tumble and stay low for a while. The auto business did struggle and automakers had to close their factories for about two months, but sales started picking up this summer. For the third quarter, G.M., Ford and other automakers reported big profits."

While the airlines suffered, some travel industry companies "have found a way to survive," the Times writes.  "Hertz sought bankruptcy protection in May. And its biggest competitor, the Avis Budget Group, ran up large losses — $639 million in the first six months of the year. But Avis turned a modest $45 million profit in the third quarter.  The company’s comeback was made possible by cost cutting and a decision to sell 75,000 vehicles in the United States to take advantage of strong demand for used cars."

The Times makes the point - and it is absolutely worth making - that many of these judgements are related to how companies' stock prices are performing.  Which is fine, except that the stock market is not always directly reflective of economic strength and weakness.

•  The Wall Street Journal has a piece about the continuing quandary facing restaurants as they try to figure out how to stay afloat as the weather gets colder but the pandemic shows no sign of going away.  

There are certain things that most restaurant owners know, the story says.  One is that customers seem to want to dine inside, just like they used to.  Another is that when their dining rooms open, receipts go up.  And many of them - especially chains like McDonald's and Starbucks - feel that they have sufficiently honed their ability to impose and enforce safety standards that will keep their employees and customers safe.

But, the Journal writes, "with Covid-19 cases rising to new heights, these chains and other restaurant owners are closing some dining rooms again now where officials have instructed them to do so. Illinois suspended indoor dining statewide on Wednesday, while a two-week stay-at-home order imposed by El Paso, Texas, through Nov. 11 has shut dining rooms.

"McDonald’s and Starbucks say they aren’t shutting dining rooms across the board this time. Instead they are fine-tuning plans that they say allow them to serve customers inside safely, even as the virus continues to circulate across the U.S."

The story goes on:  "The lack of widespread contact tracing in the U.S. has made it difficult to determine whether restaurants are facilitating the spread of the coronavirus, but federal and state studies indicate some connection. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey in September found that people who tested positive for Covid-19 were about twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant within a two-week period as people who tested negative for the virus.

"The virus thrives in enclosed spaces, and eating in a restaurant exposes diners to close contact with other people for extended periods while they are talking and not wearing masks, scientists say. Ventilation, air-purification systems and well-spaced tables can help but won’t eliminate the dangers of indoor dining as cases rise…"

It is especially restaurants that are staffed by and attractive to young people that I would be most concerned about.  In my town, a new restaurant opened the other day - Playa Bowl, which I've never heard of before.  But apparently a lot of teenagers had, because when the store did an opening day promotion, there were dozens of them line dup on the sidewalk to get in, many of them wearing masks but few practicing physical distancing.  I'm betting on a rash of infections at our local high school within the next week that ends up with many if not all students going remote.

•  From Willamette Week:

"Amid a mammoth increase in COVID-19 cases across Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown today instructed residents of Multnomah County to refrain from holding private gatherings larger than six people for the next two weeks … Brown also limited the capacity of indoor restaurants and barrooms to 50 people, including staff. She ordered all businesses to cap their capacity at 50 as well, encouraged employers to keep workers at home, and ended in-person visits at nursing homes. The restrictions apply to five counties where case rates exceed 200 per 100,000 people—including Multnomah County, the state's most populous."

•  White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows disclosed on Friday that he tested positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus last Wednesday.

•  USA Today reports that "Trader Joe’s announced that 1,250 of its 53,000 employees tested positive for COVID-19 within the past eight months, an infection rate of about 2.4%, according to the grocery store chain.

"The coronavirus also was "suspected to be a contributing factor" in two employee deaths, according to Trader Joe’s.

"The grocer has 514 stores in 42 states and Washington, D.C."

The story quotes Trader Joe's as saying that it believes that "the results in virtually all areas are below the average rates of positive cases in each community where we have stores."  Trader Joe's said that  "95% of the employees who tested positive and completed a quarantine period have recovered and chosen to return to work."

•  From the New York Times (just to give us all something else to worry about):

"The decision this week by the Danish government to kill millions of mink because of coronavirus concerns, effectively wiping out a major national industry, has put the spotlight on simmering worries among scientists and conservationists about the vulnerability of animals to the pandemic virus, and what infections among animals could mean for humans.

"The most disturbing possibility is that the virus could mutate in animals and become more transmissible or more dangerous to humans. In Denmark, the virus has shifted from humans to mink and back to humans, and has mutated in the process. Mink are the only animals known to have passed the coronavirus to humans, except for the initial spillover event from an unknown species. Other animals, like cats and dogs, have been infected by exposure to humans, but there are no known cases of people being infected by exposure to their pets."

Public health experts, the story says, worry "that any species capable of infection could become a reservoir that allowed the virus to re-emerge at any time and infect people. The virus would likely mutate in other animal species, as it has been shown to do in mink. Although most mutations are likely to be harmless, SARS-CoV-2 conceivably could recombine with another coronavirus and become more dangerous. Conservation experts also worry about the effect on animal species that are already in trouble."

•  The New York Times has a piece about how the pandemic is threatening the existence of Paris's 'les bouquinistes," metal, open-air bookstalls that sell books and periodicals, among other things, along the Left and Right banks of the River Seine.

"As lockdown restrictions to curb the coronavirus pandemic keep browsers at bay," the Times writes, "the booksellers’ livelihood is rapidly being put in jeopardy. Many are bracing for what they fear may be the final chapter for a centuries-old métier that is as iconic to Paris as the Louvre and Notre Dame … Even before France imposed a new nationwide lockdown last month to combat a resurgence of the virus, the tourists who are a staple of the bouquinistes’ income had largely stopped coming. And the beloved Parisien pastime of flânerie — strolling aimlessly to enjoy life — has been all but snuffed out, stifled by curfews and quarantines that have deprived the booksellers of die-hard clients."

The Times writes that "days go by without any vendors making a sale," and that 80 percent of the "stands that run on both sides of the river, from Notre Dame to the Pont Royal, are more or less permanently shuttered."

We could all use a little more flânerie in our lives, I think.  Frankly, we could all use a little more Paris.  At least I could.  

But let's face it.  Even Notre Dame isn't Notre Dame anymore.  And we can't blame that on the pandemic.