Why Don’t California Retailers Care About Covid?

If you don’t live in California, you might be under the impression that the state is in full lockdown mode. It certainly should be, given the increasingly dire situation with overcrowded hospitals and a severe shortage of intensive-care beds.

Yet it seems that in Los Angeles County, a sprawling mass of more than 10 million people, nobody has told the shoppers.

On January 16, L.A. County became the first in the nation to hit 1 million Covid-19 cases. The county’s overworked health department recently reported that 1 out of every 5 people were testing positive. At Dodger Stadium, the country’s largest vaccination site, lines are reported to be five hours long. Things are so bad that the local Air Quality Management District has lifted its regulations on the number of bodies that can be cremated — because as of Jan. 15, there was a backlog of more than 2,700.

And yet, if you drive around as I’ve done the last few days, you’ll notice something striking: Shopping centers are busy. On a recent weekday, the parking lot at the Ikea in Burbank — at 456,000 square feet, the company’s largest store in the U.S. — was packed in all but its outer reaches. Although California lifted its Regional Stay at Home Order this week, much of the state, including Southern California, remains in the Purple Tier, which advises limiting non-essential activities. Apparently, that doesn’t apply to shopping for inexpensive but well-designed Swedish furniture that one can spend hours assembling.

It’s not just Ikea. The parking lots at Best Buy and Marshall’s and TJ Maxx have also been pretty crowded. In Old Town Pasadena, a long line snaked outside a Sephora. (Who’s still wearing makeup these days?) At the Santa Anita Mall, mine was the only car in the curbside pickup area on a weekday afternoon. Everyone else was inside.

The one notable exception is Apple, which closed all 53 of its stores in the state several days before Christmas. An Apple spokesman said that the company is providing pay and benefits to all affected employees, with some repurposed to online support. It has no immediate plans to reopen its California stores, and has also closed stores in several other states.

Granted, with its pile of cash, Apple is in a somewhat unique position. But if things are really as bad as the numbers suggest, shouldn’t more retailers be voluntarily closing without the county or the state telling them to do so?

It’s hard not to notice that retailers account for roughly half of the Covid cases arising at employers in the county. As of January 25, the Ikea in Burbank had 47 employees who had tested positive, up nearly a third from two weeks earlier. (An Ikea spokeswoman said the company is basing its decisions on what is best for its employees and customers, but would not say whether it planned to close voluntarily.) More than 600 employees had tested positive at various Target outlets in the county.

As a parent of a 10-year-old who has now missed close to a year of actual school, I find the situation infuriating. How is it safe enough to go to an Ikea or a Nordstrom, but too dangerous for kids to go to school?

I happened to be living in New York City when the pandemic first struck last March. I still remember vividly those first few days, when something that seemed so distant — a flu-like virus from China — began creeping into daily life. One afternoon, I met a friend at a nail salon — we awkwardly avoided kissing hello, but still went through with our manicures. A few nights later, on what I now remember as the last time I ate at a restaurant, a friend and I talked about how strange everything was getting as we sipped margaritas and downed tacos. Schools were still open and so was pretty much everything else, including the crowded New York Sports Club across the street from my apartment.

It wasn’t until March 20 that Governor Andrew Cuomo issued his Pause Order. Two days later, pretty much every business that wasn’t truly essential closed down, including Ikea and other retailers. My building and many others started to empty out as people took off for the Hamptons, or upstate New York, or some other place.

We left for Maine, figuring we’d be back in our apartment in a few weeks. We stayed for nearly five months. At some point in late spring, we decided to return to our house in L.A., largely because California was being heralded as a miracle in terms of Covid cases. The highly rational part of my brain was focused on getting my son back into regular school, instead of a series of Zoom calls that, hard as the teachers tried, just weren’t the same. Now his school in L.A. has been closed since last March, while his school in New York has been operating under a hybrid model since late September.

In recent days, the Covid data in L.A. County have shown a slight decline in cases and deaths, though the health commissioner warned that “the end is not yet in sight.” Perhaps if more retailers followed Apple’s lead and voluntarily closed their stores, even for just two or three weeks, they could help the numbers come down faster.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michelle Leder is an expert on SEC filings, having launched her site, Footnoted.com, in 2003 after writing the book "Financial Fineprint: Uncovering a Company’s True Value."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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