The coronavirus economic reopening will be fragile, partial and slow

The re-emergence over coming weeks and months will be fitful, fragile and partial -- and a bit dystopian

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Walt Disney Co. reached a coronavirus milestone of sorts last month when it reopened a portion of its Shanghai Disney Resort as China's pandemic began to ebb.

But a trip to Tomorrowland may never be the same. Guests at the Shanghai resort must wear masks at all times, removing them only for eating. Hours and capacity are limited. And just to gain entry, visitors must submit to a temperature check and present a government-controlled QR code on their phone that indicates they are virus-free.


Executives around the world who rapidly overhauled operations when the coronavirus struck, and the politicians who made them do it, are now focused on restarting the economy and their own businesses. That restart, according to interviews with leaders across a range of industries, suggests that back to normal will be anything but.

The re-emergence over the coming weeks and months will be fitful, fragile and partial -- and a bit dystopian, with frequent temperature checks, increased monitoring of employees and customers, and, potentially, blood tests to determine whether workers have likely immunity to the virus. Officials and business leaders predict that operations won't fully return to normal until an effective vaccine hits the market, estimated at least a year away.


Some firms may bring office workers back in alternating groups to allow for social distancing in open-plan offices. Restaurant chains may operate at half capacity, installing plexiglas shields between booths, while stores may do away with tester cosmetics and sanitize items after customers try them on. Major League Baseball has discussed a season with no spectators, held in a part of the country where it can essentially sequester players for weeks at a time.

"When, where, and in what stages to do it," said Rich Lesser, the chief executive of Boston Consulting Group, who has spoken with several CEOs on this topic. "It's very top-of-mind."

In many ways, companies are at the mercy of local and national governments to ensure that the reopening doesn't reinvigorate the virus, which has so far infected nearly 1.8 million people world-wide and caused at least 110,000 deaths. Large-scale testing and tracing programs will become the norm, placing the average person under much greater scrutiny by the state.


The U.S. federal government has yet to launch a national test-and-trace strategy to find and isolate virus carriers and their contacts, although some state governments are discussing it. Many other developed countries are putting such programs at the heart of their efforts to keep the virus under control, using technology to identify those at risk of infection. One-third of Iceland's population has already downloaded a new government-approved app that uses GPS to track users, who can give contact-tracing officials access to their data if they test positive for the virus. China was able to come out of lockdown thanks to its aggressive efforts to find and quarantine the infected, although it used draconian isolation policies that democracies would find hard to implement.

Companies themselves have a role to play, and many are laying plans to do their part. Dozens of companies have notified the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that they are developing tests that indicate whether someone has had -- and is likely immune to -- the coronavirus, though some early efforts have hit roadblocks in other countries.

"Testing capacity, which we still have to develop, that is going to be the bridge from where we are today to the new economy in my opinion," New York Gov. Andrew. Cuomo said Wednesday. "It's going to be a testing-informed transition to the new economy."

Major airlines are discussing the feasibility of having passengers submit to temperature checks before boarding flights. It isn't yet clear whether airlines or airport security would shoulder that task. Two weeks ago, American Airlines Group Inc. began asking frequent fliers and top corporate customers what it might take to get them comfortable with flying again. Their answer? Clean planes.

The airline has been disinfecting cabins more often, among other measures; now, part of its task is making sure customers know what American is doing, said Kurt Stache, American's senior vice president of customer experience. It is also looking at how to limit contact between travelers during boarding and in flight.

Passengers might grab their own beverages and snacks as they board through the jet bridge on short flights. The tradition of flight attendants' serving hot nuts on a tray in first class may become a relic of a bygone age.

Customers contacted by American say they think the crisis will abate within three to six months, with half of customers surveyed saying they'd consider flying again about six weeks after the virus dissipates.

Manufacturers have redrawn factory floor plans and implemented processes, such as staggering shift workers or asking employees to take turns eating lunch in their cars to avoid cafeteria crowding, practices that may become standard as more plants come back online.

Tyson, the biggest U.S. meat company by sales, is installing walk-through temperature scanners at its plants across the country and sending home workers showing potential Covid-19 symptoms, said Hector Gonzalez, Tyson's head of U.S. human resources. Scanners could remain in place beyond the pandemic, he said, helping reduce colds and influenza among employees.

"They may present an advantage in the future that we didn't have before, " Mr. Gonzalez said.

When Toyota Motor Corp.'s American auto assembly lines restart, the lines will run at slower speeds than normal due to steep drops in consumer demand. The slowed-down lines will also help maintain social distancing in plants, said Chris Reynolds, chief administrator for manufacturing at the company's U.S. division.

The Japanese auto maker, which has begun making face shields while its assembly lines are down, will integrate those emergency personal-protective-equipment efforts into the business, said Chris Reynolds, chief administrator for manufacturing at the company's U.S. division.

Toyota is also testing protocols like on-site health screenings for workers involved in medical-supply production that can be widened as the company restarts auto production.

"We never let a pilot program go to waste," he said.

The company would consider antibody testing for workers if required, but views it as tough to implement, Mr. Reynolds said.

"That essentially means taking blood samples from our team members," he said. "That's a little more intrusive than putting a thermometer to your forehead and asking a couple questions."


General Motors Co. is considering a number of options for testing workers for the virus and is prioritizing tests with quicker turnaround for results, said Jim Glynn, the auto maker's global chief of workplace safety. That could include antibody testing, he said.

"If it's scalable, easy, noninvasive and people are willing to do it, of course we would figure out how to implement it," Mr. Glynn said of antibody testing.

Some plans sound like science fiction. Major League Baseball is exploring the idea of staging some form of a season by setting up a biodome, or closed ecological system, in the Phoenix area and sequestering players and other essential personnel there, according to several people familiar with the matter. Games would be held at the Arizona Diamondbacks' Chase Field in downtown Phoenix, nearby spring training facilities and on fields at local universities. The league said in a statement that while it has discussed the idea of staging games in one location, "we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan."

Many multinational operations are looking to their China units for a playbook.

Starbucks Corp. executives in the U.S. held talks with bosses in the company's China division beginning in late January to understand the virus' spread there. In February, the coffee chain imported procedures it had been using in China to the U.S., including stepped-up cleaning, paying workers to quarantine and pushing to-go offerings, before closing dine-in service at most of its 8,870 company-owned stores last month.

More than 95% of the company's China stores are now open with limited hours and reduced seating, restrictions Starbucks could also implement in the U.S. as it returns to more normal service. Starbucks China "basically created a model that we are now using around the world," Chief Executive Kevin Johnson said.

Disney's Shanghai attraction may offer some lessons for the rest of the company's theme parks. Disneyland and Walt Disney World have now been closed for more days than every closure in their history combined. Disney is weighing several changes to its global parks operations before reopening to the public, including temperature checks for guests, according to people familiar with the situation.

"To return to some semblance of normal, people will have to feel comfortable that they're safe," said Robert Iger, Disney's executive chairman and former chief executive, in an interview with Barron's, discussing tentative plans to reopen elsewhere. "We've asked ourselves the question, let's prepare for a world where our customers demand that we scrutinize everybody. Even if it creates a little bit of hardship, like it takes a little bit longer for people to get in."

Employers with large office-bound workforces are thinking about ways to bring employees back without spreading contagion.

"We're already getting a lot of questions from clients about, 'how do we create that physical distancing with our employees,' especially in open plans where they may be sitting tightly together," said Janet Pogue McLaurin, a principal at Gensler, a global design and architecture firm.