It’s time to think about getting back to business, but in a responsible way. That’s the tune from industry organizations, as they focus on how the U.S. can move on to the post-coronavirus “new normal.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has three legs to its communications stool for the coronavirus pandemic.
“The first phase was answering, ‘How do you keep everyone safe?’” says Michelle Russo, chief communications officer. “The second phase was to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 through the advocacy of relief legislation and, once the CARES Act was passed, helping people access it.”
With most industries are in the “mitigate impact” phase, the Chamber has launched its latest push, called Path Forward, a program to help business prepare for the reopening of the U.S. economy, which will no doubt bring a host of challenges.
“There are going to be some complicated issues, so businesses need to start thinking about how they will get back to work in a fully operational way,” explains Russo.
Path Forward launched this week with a twice-weekly online series featuring experts sharing tips on a responsible reopening strategy. It will cover issues like barriers to reopening such as childcare and transit, lessons learned from other countries and advice for high-density retail businesses.
Other industry associations are also reaching out to stakeholders about reopening for business, but in a way that is safe for customers.
That includes the National Restaurant Association, which represents 1 million restaurants and food-service outlets in the U.S. hard hit by stay-at-home and social distancing orders. In most of the country, food and beverage establishments have had to shut down their dining rooms and can only offer curbside pick-up or drive-thru window service.
The industry will lose at least $225 billion in sales and be forced to eliminate 5 to 7 million jobs in the next three months, according to the association. A survey of its members also found seven in 10 restaurant operators have had to lay off staff.
“We had been contextualizing not just for diners but also policymakers what the industry contributes to the economy, and so our messages to media and in letters to policymakers always started with the fact that this situation is dire for the economy but especially restaurants,” says Mollie O’Dell, VP of comms and media relations for the industry body.
The association has taken note of governors who have started talking about reopening their states in stages. O’Dell says the industry needs to get across that its workforce is responsible and ready to safely restart.
“We’ll be starting to talk about our industry’s highly skilled and trained workforce,” she says. “While we’ll never get ahead of CDC recommendations, we will be talking about reopening in respect to following the precautions set forth by local governments, since it does sound like reopening will happen by state or even municipality.”
The industry group has launched a website, RestaurantsAct.com, which covers protocols about the loosening of restrictions on businesses. It provides state-by-state information for members about relief options.
The association is also part of an “economic revival industry group” devoted to food and beverage that was announced by President Donald Trump this week. It includes the CEOs of Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Papa John’s, Starbucks and Wendy’s. Marvin Irby, president of the National Restaurant Association, is also part of the group.
“We’ve been working on getting all the messaging together about how the group will help our members move forward,” says O’Dell.
While most associations have seen an across-the-board COVID-19 hit to their members’ bottom lines, the National Retail Federation is dealing “with a tale of two worlds,” says Bill Thorne, SVP of comms and public affairs.
In March, sales at clothing stores were down year-over-year by 52%, furniture stores by 25.2%, sporting goods stores by 24.4% and electronics and appliance stores by 16.2%. However, sales at grocery and beverage stores were up 25.7%, general merchandisers by 5.7% and health and personal care stores by 5.5%. Online and other non-store sales jumped year-over-year by 12.1%.
Stores in the positive categories are considered “essential” and remain open. While essential stores have been adapting to social distancing measures, Thorne says the NRF is focused on helping non-essential retail get back to business successfully.
“In all our advocacy to the administration, Congress and policymakers at the state and municipal level, we are making sure non-essential retail is not being forgotten,” says Thorne. “We are reminding stakeholders that they employ millions of workers who have been furloughed, terminated or taken time off without pay.”
That doesn’t mean the sector should rush to reopen. Thorne adds that his group’s focus will be on helping retailers come back in a reasonable way. To do that, the NRF is building a program with members called Operation Open Doors.
“We are working with health agencies, municipalities and state governments on what the core guidelines need to be in helping retailers reopen,” says Thorne. “There needs to be some consistency for retailers regardless of whether they are small, medium or large.”
The auto industry, which accounts for about 10 million jobs, and produces almost $2 trillion in economic output per year, according to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, is busy trying to figure out what the new normal will look like. The alliance was formed in January via a merger of two trade groups, the Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
In early March, the association set up a COVID-19 response task force that meets three times a week and feeds a “virtual situation room” for members online, where the association updates vehicle production status and engagements it has undertaken with policymakers.
It anticipates sales to be down by as much as 40% in March compared to a year earlier.
“Our work is first and foremost being driven by the health and safety of our member companies and their employees, customers and communities,” says John Bozzella, president and CEO of the alliance. “We have to be able to reassure employees, policymakers and other government officials that we have been thoughtful about getting the industry back to work in a safe manner.”
To that end, the alliance has partnered with organizations that represent auto-parts suppliers so they are following the same COVID-19 precautions and guidelines as the country’s 14 automakers.
“It is really important for associations to think broadly about a restart,” notes Bozzella.
The industry group is also lobbying the government to provide “critical infrastructure designations and definitions on what is essential,” since auto manufacturers depend on parts made at plants in states that might not open at the same time.
“We want to make sure any guidance around essential business and infrastructure is clear and concise and then we flow this information from the federal government to key automotive states as well as our trading partners in Canada and Mexico,” says Bozzella.