- The Washington Times
Monday, May 4, 2020

Opening businesses after the coronavirus health emergency is one thing. Getting customers back is another.

Business owners across the country are scrambling to reassure diners, shoppers and travelers it’s safe to start spending again in ways many took for granted.

“I think everybody’s going to be a little bit nervous,” said Walter Lane, chairman of the Economics and Finance Department at the University of New Orleans.

“Some people are champing at the bit to get out and go to a restaurant, and I think everyone wants to get out, but they want to be sure it’s safe before they get there,” Mr. Lane said. “They have to be safe, of course, but people are making sure they seem safe. It’s a very different thing than marketing people were used to doing before.”

In other words, it probably won’t be enough to simply declare “it’s safe,” as Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly did this week. Something more in terms of cleaning and social distancing likely will be required.

That’s true for businesses that stayed open to some extent during the Great Closing that occurred across the country.

At Hertz rental cars, CEO Kathy Marinello boasts of the $2 million in free vehicles the company provided to New York City front-line workers. Hertz’s website makes clear what will be a new major priority:


“Around the world, we have enhanced our cleaning methods at our locations, using approved disinfectant to regularly wipe down high-touch areas such as door handles, counters, kiosks and other hard surfaces,” Hertz declares.

And while Mr. Kelly did his best to tell Southwest travelers they are once again free to move about the country, American Airlines announced that as of May 11, their fliers will only be able to do so if they are masked.

If those steps prove insufficient to lure customers who see the skies as unfriendly, an Italian company, Aviointeriors, is marketing its new “Glassafe” bubbles, which attached to seats can “shield passengers from their neighbors and those passing through the aisle by cocooning each one in a plastic shield.”

Thus, masked people on trains may no longer represent bandits.

Mr. Lane noted that he and his wife had booked tickets on Amtrak to visit family in Montana in July. Amtrak sent regular emails to inform the Lanes the dining car would be closed, that passengers must strictly follow social distancing guidelines and that Amtrak staffers would be masked.

The Lanes were satisfied with Amtrak’s precautions but canceled the trip anyway because of something the railway could not control.

“Union Station in Chicago,” Mr. Lane said. “Have you been there? We were feeling pretty good about it, and then we realized we had to change trains in Chicago. We’d have a 4-hour layover there.”

Mr. Lane’s concern cuts to the heart of the problem facing airlines, subway systems and bus companies: Mass transit, by definition, requires customers to converge in order to board or disembark.

The same is true, on a smaller scale, for retail and restaurants, where many economists are imagining months of carefully spaced tables and masked servers.

Polls indicate customers are extremely wary.

“Just 18% of U.S. adults say they’re comfortable going out to eat or going on vacation right now,” a Morning Consult survey found Monday.

While slightly more people identifying as Republicans expressed a willingness to risk commerce than Democrats, the figures were grim for many slices of the economy. For instance, the survey found that less than 20% of people now are willing to go to a shopping mall, and less than 15% of people say they are comfortable with going to the movies, a work conference, a gym or several other activities.

In a separate poll of 2,200 U.S. adults, Morning Consult found that 80% of Americans are “unlikely to go to a movie theater before their state meets established benchmarks,” despite some theater openings now being permitted in previously shutdown states such as Georgia and Texas.

In some cases, the steps may boomerang. More than a third — 36% — of those polled said they did not want to go to entertainment events if they had to be masked, while in the restaurant business masks are a proven impediment to eating and drinking.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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