As governors relaxed stay-at-home orders and people ventured out in recent days, the number of new reported cases of COVID-19 has surged again, reaching a single-day record on Sunday, according to the World Health Organization. Between Jan. 20 and July 1 of this year there have been 2,573,393 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 126,573 deaths in the U.S., according to WHO data.
That has prompted a return to rules limiting gatherings and called into question the wisdom of reopening bars, restaurants and stores. It's a predicament for retailers, which have taken a hit as most nonessential stores were closed starting in March in hopes of stemming the pandemic.
Retailers last month jumped at the chance to reopen. On the last day of April, for example, Macy's announced a staggered plan to reopen "a majority" of its 775 stores in six to eight weeks, starting with 68 on May 4. Toward the end of the month, about 190 Macy's and Bloomingdale's stores were open in their full formats, and another 80 Macy's stores opened Memorial Day weekend, with "enhanced health and safety standards across all of our stores and facilities," CEO Jeff Gennette said in a statement. As of Wednesday, the retailer stated that nearly all of its stores have reopened, including those locations in major cities.
Such actions led to a partial retail sales recovery in May from a devastating April, demonstrating the power of brick and mortar. The retail sectors tracked by Retail Dive together saw sales rise 28.2% month to month. Since then, even more retailers have opened even more stores, indicating that June could be that much better. But with summer officially started and the Fourth of July fast approaching, the serious spikes in COVID-19 cases suggest that, at least in some areas, reopening may have been premature.
As tracked by The Washington Post, seven states — Arizona, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — last week reported "new highs for current coronavirus hospitalizations." Florida alone reported over 38,000 new cases combined from June 25-29. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday moved to tighten up some rules after loosening them earlier in the month. Although it didn't affect retailers, some moved to shut down again on their own.
After reopening most of its stores, for example, Apple closed seven in Texas alone, along with several in Florida, and some in Arizona and the Carolinas, or at least 10% of its fleet, according to multiple news reports. Apple didn't immediately return Retail Dive's request for its latest count and revised plans for its stores.
In any case, with just six months to go before the holidays, the developments are disquieting.
"Much of retail has appeared to be on the upswing over the last month, as stores have started to reopen," Instinet retail analyst Michael Baker said in emailed comments, highlighting that many stores have reopened the majority of their fleet. "But we have started to see an increase in a handful of new states reporting record-high new cases of coronavirus. To the extent that means there is a potential that stores will need to close again, as [Apple] recently announced, this trend could impact our back-half sales estimates."
To reopen or not
While the pandemic is surging across the U.S., some areas are faring worse than others, with more cases reported in areas that reopened earlier. Cities like New York and elsewhere in the Northeast that enforced lockdowns for longer periods are seeing decreases in reported cases, hospitalizations and deaths, in contrast to the surges seen over the weekend.
That underscores how hard retailers must work to assess whether and where to reopen stores, according to retail consultant Matt Sargent, principal of Sargent Up North.
"If you're a retailer in Boise or Long Island you're going to be doing very different things. If you're a retailer in an area that's escalating you may need to be taking very different actions than in other areas," he said. "You should be working with authorities to make that a quantitative process rather than a qualitative one. Given the politically charged aspect of this whole topic, retailers are in a very, very tough position in terms of how they want to publicly address their employees' health and policy around stores."
It's a difficult task, especially given some consumers' reluctance to practice physical distancing or wear masks. Even as cases spiked over the weekend, social media was rife with examples of shoppers resisting those rules. Store associates at a North Hollywood, California, Trader Joe's, for example, had the task of kicking out a shopper who refused to abide by store policies, as seen in a viral video.
But it shouldn't be on store employees to be enforcers, according to Lisa LaBruno, senior executive vice president of retail operations and innovation at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
"Some of these situations have really escalated. Some retailers have resorted to positioning employees or third-party security to enforce [the rules]," she said in an interview, noting that so-called essential retailers, which weren't forced to close, have developed effective ways to establish and enforce rules, and have been proactive in sharing their knowledge, even with rivals. "That just shows how nimble and agile retailers are and speaks to the awesome responsibility that we're addressing this with."
How to reopen
Even where reopening makes sense, it doesn't mean a return to normal. As seen at Trader Joe's, retailers have had to institute strict new cleaning protocols and limits on their customers.
Restricting how many people are in the store at one time and requiring employees and even customers to wear masks and practice social distancing are crucial until there's a vaccine or a meaningful level of aggregate immunity in the population, health experts say. It can be an uphill battle, as seen at Walmart, which as an essential retailer has been allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic. Some of its locations in recent weeks temporarily closed, or were forced to close by health authorities, however, after reports of infections.
"What I will say to your retail establishments, I would urge them to think about their workers and their staff and be wiling to provide them with high quality masks and multiple masks over time, and to be flexible if a worker is sick and needs to stay home," Julie Swann, a pandemic response expert, and professor and department head at North Carolina State, told Retail Dive in an interview. "For both restaurants and stores there are some ways that are better and some ways that are worse. But we can take precautions, distance ourselves, use face coverings."
While some retailers are making mask-wearing optional for customers, that isn't wise in light of the many asymptomatic people capable of spreading the virus, according to immunologist Robert Quigley, M.D., senior vice president and regional medical director of medical and travel security services firm International SOS. In the U.S., where there is a diversity of languages and politics, retailers must be clear, repetitive and unequivocal in their communications to any visitor, including vendors and customers, he told Retail Dive in an interview.
If strict protocols are followed, which means the trifecta of social distancing, mask-wearing and sanitization — including constant cleaning of surfaces and provision of hand sanitizers for customers and employees — retailers should be able to reopen safely, he said.
"We're dealing with human behavior, retailers must be clear in stating their policies," he said. "We've got to have signage, signage, signage everywhere you turn. People like directions, communications. If we do that and we enforce that and comply, we're good to go. I think if we're compliant, and it's about messaging and repetition, we can get pretty darn close to a COVID risk-free environment."
UPDATE: July 1, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect more accurate data about the pandemic.