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Ready (Or Not): The US Is Reopening

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As of this writing, 47 out of 50 states are “opening up their economies.” That means different things in different states, but in general, we will see a phased re-opening of non-essential businesses, parks and beaches.

While there has been much discussion around “retail readiness” and checklists galore around what must happen to open a store, I remain really concerned. Sure, we have, and must use technology to confirm those various checklists are followed. But…when even “essential businesses” aren’t following basics, how can we expect the non-essential ones to do so? Here’s a recent and very troubling example. And it has to do with my most recent pharmacy pick-up.

I have been self-quarantining since March 5. The extent of my forays includes a couple of veterinary visits (he comes to my house and does the work in his RV), taking a drive or two, photographing the full moon last week quite near home, and (as I said), picking up my prescriptions from a national chain’s drive-thru window. I’m not going to name names, but I suspect you know who you are.

Early in the lockdown, there were massive shortages of PPE (Personal Protection Equipment). The public received mixed messages about face masks. Don’t wear them, wear them, save them for medical personnel, make your own, don’t expect them to protect you, they exist to protect others from you – but the bottom line was definitely “save the best of them for medical personnel.”

I wasn’t too surprised to see that pharmacy techs weren’t wearing gloves or masks back then. The things were just impossible to find. Shoppers got creative to solve this problem. I would use the drive-through to pick up my prescription, and then immediately Purell my hands and my steering wheel until I could get home to do a thorough hand-wash. I did have gloves, but my driver’s license had been handled by the ungloved techs along with the bag my scrip(s) were in. In other words, I dealt with it.

Times have changed. Long story short, masks are now readily available and disposable ones are quite inexpensive. Heck, they’re being advertised on Facebook. In fact, my hairdresser (a haircut will definitely be my first and only “real” non-socially-distanced event this week) is required by mandate to provide masks for all her employees.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the pharmacy tech who handed me my scrip at the drive-thru window wearing what looked like a home-made cloth mask and no gloves at all. Of course, I asked her about it, and her answer was “We’re supposed to wear masks, but we’re supposed to provide them ourselves.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Cloth masks are meant (as we’ve been told) to keep us from infecting others and have little to no value in preventing our own infection. But this woman is putting herself at risk at the pharmacy counter. The people she’ll meet there are likely sick. And her protection is nil. How does one of the largest retailers in the world, who has been open everywhere for the entire lockdown, and who likely will have a windfall of profits as a result, NOT provide masks for its employees? I mean, can’t it find a billion or so out of its $100 billion in annual revenue for its employees? And why is it able to do that when my hairdresser, whose salon may well not survive the pandemic running at the required 25% of capacity must act differently? Kids. If I ruled the world, I’d fine that chain massively. Costs deferred from the corporation to its lower-paid employees? What is that, exactly? I have no kind words.

I’m quite sure that retailers will use technology to confirm compliance to local regulations at store level. It’s the only way to keep track of vast geographically dispersed empires. We can expect localized flare-ups of the virus all through the summer, at minimum. Retailers will desperately need technology to help them keep track of locations, employees, compliance, and risk. That’s clear. I have no way of knowing what will happen in the fall. I’m not an epidemiologist. I do know that technology will still be required.

Every business is entitled to make money. But we must also remember human costs. The pharmacy desk is as close as you can get to being a front-line medical worker without being in a doctor’s office or hospital. As an industry we keep talking about the importance of knowledgeable and loyal employees. Now that we’ve entered a recession/depression, have we decided they’re fungible again?

So yes, use technology to track compliance to local standards. Create checklists and make sure that stores are following them. Clean rest rooms, doorknobs, and anything else that might be touched. But good heavens, remember that when dealing with the public, the issue is not just protection of others from sick employees, but also protection of employees from sick shoppers.

Consumers still have choices. They’re bowed, but they’re not yet beaten. I expect we’ll see a continued bifurcation between the independent retailer and massive one-stop-shopping environments like Walmart and Target. Neither employees nor consumers should be taken for granted. Don’t forget, prescriptions can be filled at other places than chain drug stores.

Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Consumers have long memories, as do beleaguered employees. I know I will never forget that jury-rigged face mask. I doubt the employee will either.

Be smart. As my father might say, be a mensch. The economy is re-opening. Do it right.

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Newsletter Articles May 12, 2020
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