What will be retail’s new normal if social distancing stays in place until 2022?
Nearly 637,000 people in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19 to date and more than 28,000 have died. Every state in the nation and all its territories have had cases reported, and there are likely many others still unknown due to a lack of comprehensive testing.
Even as governors in some states that have issued stay-at-home and strict social distancing orders are feeling more confident that these measures have them close to the top of their respective disease curves, medical experts warn that reopening the economy and relaxing these measures prematurely could bring another wave of cases, threatening already scarce human and physical resources to fight the virus.
The pandemic’s impact on U.S. retailing has been profound. Industry sales fell a record 8.7 percent last month, more than double the previous record during the Great Recession, based on Commerce Department figures. Many experts expect the decline in April to be even steeper as many retailers closed stores near the end of March.
Despite a widespread consensus in medical circles that a conservative approach is called for, there are elements of the political and business class lobbying states to quickly lift restrictions and “reopen the economy,” as President Trump has said. In a press conference on Tuesday, Mr. Trump said that some governors “will be in really good shape to open up even sooner” than May 1.
As discussions go on about the timing and scope of a reopening, a new paper from Harvard’s school of public health published in the journal Science sees a scenario whereby “prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022.”
The researchers came to the conclusion based on several factors, including the likely behavior of COVID-19 based on how other related viruses have acted in the past. One takeaway is that, while the heat of the summer months in the U.S. may slow the spread of COVID-19, it is unlikely to vanquish it. Large numbers of people who have either not been exposed to the virus and are not immune to the virus and a lack of a vaccine against the disease could provide fertile ground for further spread in the fall. Looked at seasonally, the researchers concluded that the virus hits “lower peaks” in the winter/spring and “more acute outbreaks” in autumn/winter.
The study, which considered dozens of potential scenarios for the virus, concludes that sans a vaccine, “several rounds” of distancing will be required before the U.S. reaches a state of herd immunity.
- Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count – The New York Times
- Trump says close to plan to reopen economy possibly, in part, before May 1 – Reuters
- March retail sales plummet during coronavirus pandemic – National Retail Federation
- Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period – Science
- Social distancing until 2022?! Hopefully not. – MIT Technology Review
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: To whom should retail leaders look to determine the right time to go back to business-as-usual — or something approximating it? What changes do you expect across retail verticals in the U.S. if “prolonged or intermittent social distancing” is necessary for an extended period of time?