Retail

State Governments Deliver Mixed Messages On Reopening Retail

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State governments are dropping the ball on retail reopenings. As the week plays out, inconsistent direction and confusion have been standard with New York, Texas, California and Hawaii getting criticized by retailers big and small.

For example, in New York State confusion about opening malls in the areas north of New York City started Wednesday when Simon Properties announced it was opening several of its properties in the Lower Hudson Valley on May 16. That was not consistent with the state government, which has not yet set final guidelines for mall reopenings. After making the statement, Simon retracted it, pledging cooperation with local officials.

In California, confusion reigned as Governor Gavin Newsom left a date of May 8 for some retail, but did not specify state guidelines and vaguely left the door open for local governments to set their own reopening plans.

“We are not telling locals that feel it’s too soon, too fast, to modify. We believe those local communities that have separate timelines should be afforded the capacity to advance those timelines. For example, the Bay Area. Northern California. They have guidelines that are a little more strict than these guidelines. If they choose not to come into compliance with the state guidelines, they have that right,” Newsom said.

Right after that statement central Contra Costa County Supervisor Candace Andersen said she was confused by the governor’s statement.

Texas has been among the most aggressive and controversial states for reopening its economy. It eased all restrictions on May 1 but has been criticized for ignoring significant increases in the infection rate around one of its biggest cities, Houston. According to Texas Medical Center, on May 1 the number of confirmed cases in the area stood at 9,245. By Monday it jumped to 9,978. Statewide, on March 4, the state health department reported Texas’ first positive case of COVID-19. One month later, on April 4, there were 6,110 cases. As of May 4, 32,332 Texans had tested positive for the virus, with 7,035 of those cases were confirmed in just one week, according to data analyzed by The Texas Tribune. Yet the state has reopened.

“They say that it’s too early to open, that we haven’t seen that two-week decline,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, referring to federal guidance calling for a 14-day drop in new cases. “In fact, in Texas we haven’t seen any decline. And we rank dead last in testing. So they’re telling us to brace for worse infections because we didn’t follow the science.”

A new research study from the MIT Sloan School of Management aims to give governors more guidance as they consider (and reconsider) reopening plans. “Across the country, state leaders are making decisions in the dark about which types of businesses and locations can reopen and which ones should be kept closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” says the study. “But in the fight against this pandemic, intuition alone isn’t good enough. Our research offers empirical evidence about the relative dangers and advantages of reopening stores and gathering places, to help governors and state officials reach decisions.”

According to the MIT analysis, financial institutions and general merchandise stores, such as Walmart and Target, should be among the first businesses to reopen. These locations provide substantial economic and social value and typically have large spaces that limit crowding. The next phase should include universities, places of worship, auto dealers and repair shops, and other retail, which offer a “balanced tradeoff of risks and benefits,” according to the research. Within the retail category, electronics and furniture stores should be reopened before sporting goods and liquor and tobacco stores.

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