NEW YORK — With the COVID-19 pandemic resurging across the country, retailers are beginning to reactivate measures to protect both their customers and employees from infection. The actions are taking place against a background of soaring cases, hospitalizations and deaths as new, more lethal variants wreak havoc among the large numbers of unvaccinated in the United States, particularly in the South and Midwest.
On August 5, the number of new cases nationwide broke 100,000, topping out at 100,779. The seven-day average on that date was 95,066. In the week leading up to August 5, the number of new daily cases reported rose 43.2% while COVID-related hospitalizations leapt 37.6%. Daily reported deaths climbed 40.4%.
The pandemic’s rebound could threaten the nation’s economic recovery, National Retail Federation chief economist Jack Kleinhenz argued earlier this month, noting that health concerns were likely weighing on consumer confidence. He credited COVID-19 vaccines with helping drive economic growth this year, and said the fact that the pace of vaccinations was slowing was a worrisome sign.
“Vaccination is the key to further economic recovery, reopening and rebuilding,” Kleinhenz said. “With the outlook for the global economy continuing to hinge on public health, vaccine numbers are extremely important, not just for the United States but for the whole world.”
As July drew to a close, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance regarding mask wearing as the numbers of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths kept climbing. The CDC recommended that people — regardless of their vaccination status — resume wearing a mask in indoor public settings in areas of “substantial and high transmission.”
Walmart immediately announced its compliance with the CDC guideline and issued a memo to all associates urging them to get vaccinated if still unvaccinated.
“We continue to watch with deep concern the developments of the pandemic and the spread of variants, especially the Delta variant,” stated the memo, issued by Donna Morris, chief people officer, and Dr. Cheryl Pegus, executive vice president of health and wellness. “We know vaccinations are our solution to drive change. We are urging you to get vaccinated and want to see many more of you vaccinated.”
The company also doubled the cash incentive offered associates to $150, including new associates on their first day.
“As a country, vaccination options have been available for months, but, unfortunately, because so many people have chosen not to receive it, we’ve left ourselves more vulnerable to variants,” the memo continued.
Ironically, Walmart’s home state, Arkansas, has one of the lowest rates of vaccination: Only 36% of residents are fully vaccinated.
The present resurgence is a function of new, more easily transmitted strains such as the Delta, Delta-plus and Lambda variants combined with lagging vaccination rates. The rate of vaccination nationwide peaked in April as political and cultural opposition to vaccination has ramped up.
Other major retailers have offered a variety of incentives to customers and employees to get vaccinated. Kroger Health, the health care division of the nation’s largest supermarket operator, conducted a $5 million #CommunityImmunity Giveaway from early June to early July in an effort to drive increased vaccination. The program gave customers and employees the chance to win prizes including one of five $1 million checks or one of 50 “groceries for a year.”
Kroger has been focusing on underserved communities, enlisting the support of prominent major league baseball players to overcome vaccination hesitancy within Black and Hispanic communities, which have vaccination rates far below the national average.
At Albertsons Cos., management is discussing the resumption of protocols, restrictions and lockdowns if the resurgence continues, president and chief executive officer Vivek Sankaran told The Wall Street Journal in late July. “We’re starting to talk about it,” he said. “We will be prepared.”
For its part, Hy-Vee Inc. is hosting vaccination clinics at the Iowa State Fair from August 12 to August 22. No appointments are necessary, and patients will be able to select the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) single-dose vaccine or the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, which must be administered in two doses.
“Hy-Vee pharmacies have been at the forefront of the COVID-19 vaccine administration over the past eight months, and we’re proud to provide easy access to the vaccine at this year’s Iowa State Fair,” said Kristin Williams, executive vice president and chief health officer at Hy-Vee.
One positive note is that during the first week of August, vaccination rates picked up in the South and the Midwest, the regions being hammered hardest by the Delta variant, as fear apparently began to overcome suspicion. Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Alabama saw their highest vaccination rates since April. The trend probably also reflects the growing number of employers establishing vaccine mandates for their workers.