Corporate leaders need to ‘talk sense with Trump’ about coronavirus

Healthcare workers from University of South Florida (USF) Health administer coronavirus testing at the Lee Davis Community Resource Center on June 25, 2020 in Tampa, Florida.

Octavio Jones | Getty Images

BOSTON – The inert capital city of Massachusetts last Friday underscored the degree to which the coronavirus has affected the country not just medically but economically.

There was virtually no commuter traffic because most of Boston’s office towers were empty. Not only wasn’t there baseball at Fenway Park but it wasn’t even open for public tours. Most of the surrounding restaurants were closed and one that was open, the famed Cask’n Flagon, had no customers at high noon.

A friend who flew in to town visit his sick mother at a nearby hospital drove from Milwaukee to Chicago to catch a direct flight because of reduced airline service in his hometown.

The effects of Covid-19 are far-reaching and, without better testing, contact tracing and mask-wearing, its re-emergence nationally is already exacting a second round of economic damage on the United States.

That’s something neither workers nor companies can afford, and it’s why it’s time for the nation’s business leaders to talk sense with President Donald Trump. They must make clear he can no longer minimize this virus but has to redouble the nation’s efforts to bring it under control.

Corporate CEOs from Apple’s Tim Cook on down may be the only people left who can make this clear to the president. They are non-politicians who speak a language understood by the real estate developer-turned-president.

Their bottom-line is the nation’s, and it’s hemorrhaging cash.

Corporate CEOs from Apple’s Tim Cook on down may be the only people left who can make this clear to the president.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Target had already spent $1 billion increasing pay to its hourly workers, as well as providing paid leave and safety equipment including masks. Walmart, the nation’s leading retailer, spent $900 million in the quarter ended April 30. Kroger shelled out $830 million on similar expenses, and Home Depot $640 million.

“A clearer picture will come when more firms report their results for the current quarter, beginning next month,” the Journal added.

That may be the case in the sense of Securities and Exchange Commission filings, but big and small businesses are already generating updated reports.

Apple announced last week it was closing 14 stores in Florida it had re-opened because of rising COVID-19 infection rates. That came less than a week after it said it was re-closing 11 stores in Florida as well as Texas, Arizona, North Carolina and South Carolina for the same reason.

All told, the tech giant has now re-closed 32 stores because of the surge.

Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, two of President Trump’s Republican allies who were among the first to re-open their states after the initial March lockdown, announced Friday they were re-closing bars in their states in an effort to limit the virus’s spread.

Scientists have made clear for months the only way to control the virus before a vaccine’s available is to socially distance. That initially meant shuttering our economy to prevent a surge of infections from overwhelming our nation’s hospitals.

Trump and Congress wisely stepped in, providing financial aid to corporations and small businesses, as well as cash payments to affected American workers. Enhanced unemployment checks will help the furloughed or laid-off through July, at least. The Federal Reserve stepped up to support Wall Street.

The world’s biggest economy can’t stay shut forever, though, so both the government and public health community outlined the conditions for re-opening: continued social distancing, as well as increased testing to locate the infected, and contact tracing to track down and isolate those who may have come in contact with a person carrying the virus.

Big and small business spent the lockdown reconfiguring themselves, spacing desks, installing touchless doors and sinks, reducing customer capacity and creating one-way traffic patterns.

Skipping ahead

But some elected leaders skipped ahead and re-opened without enacting crucial measures, as well as the simplest and most effective of them all: mandatory mask-wearing when indoors, or where social distancing is impossible.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and even Vice President Mike Pence have now joined the chorus advocating for masks.

Trump has exacerbated the situation by not only refusing to wear a mask in public but by making mask-wearing both a partisan and masculinity litmus test.

CEOs have to contend with workforces who would rebel in the face of such intransigence, so some have already said employees can continue working remotely forever. Airline leaders have required passengers to wear masks, not just to promote public health but protect their workers. The White House has joined some companies in daily testing of its workforce.

It’s time, though, for some of these same corporate leaders to make clear the country itself – their customer base – must adopt these practices if it’s to halt the coronavirus rebound. It’s vital not only now, as the national death toll nears 130,000 people, but to avoid the hellacious effects of a predicted second wave this fall.

The Apples and Boeings and Toyotas of the world have had the president’s ear; they should use it again.

Not only lives but livelihoods are at stake.

Glen Johnson is a former Boston Globe political reporter who covered five presidential elections before serving as a senior communications aide to Secretary of State John Kerry. His debut book about the State Department and diplomacy, Window Seat on the World, won a 2020 Benjamin Franklin Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association.





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