Panic-fueled shopping has become the rule of the day as COVID-19 spreads across the U.S., exposing yet another gaping hole in national leadership.
Two holes, in fact.
On the regulatory side, the federal government has failed to reinforce laws that should protect front-line grocery clerks and other service workers from exposure to infected customers and co-workers. And on the messaging side, there has been no coordinated, nationalized effort to exhort the shopping public to exercise the basic laws of human decency when buying food and other necessities.
The invisible OSHA
To be fair, everyone is grappling with an unprecedented situation.
Nevertheless, “too little, too late” would be a fair characterization of the federal response to worker safety protections under OSHA, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not issue comprehensive worker protection guidelines on COVID-19 until March 9, just four days before the president declared a national emergency — even though serious concerns were raised as early as January by U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Kamala Harris (D-California) among other top officials.
In effect, OSHA provided employers with just four days to develop an “infectious disease preparedness and response plan that can help guide protective actions against COVID-19” before the president acknowledged that the nation was already in the grip of a full-blown crisis.
If that sounds like not enough time to prepare, that's because it is not enough time to prepare.
The window for preparation to take on COVID-19 has closed
It is a safe bet that as of March, most businesses in the U.S. did not already have a plan to take on this pandemic on their books.
Even for those with a plan, instant activation is impossible unless they also have engaged in an ongoing regimen of employee education and training, including active drills as well as classroom instruction.
Without that continuity, the lag between having a plan and implementing it begins to stretch out. Updating a plan takes time, coordinating management takes time, and, in particular, providing guidance to both employees and customers takes time.
It also takes time for people — both employees and customers — to assimilate such guidance and then make it a habit.
That’s a key consideration when one minor slip-up in a restroom or a workplace kitchen — touching a light switch with a bare hand, for example — can potentially spread infection.
Where is the leadership?
OSHA is just one element in a far broader failure of federal leadership on COVID-19 preparedness, as amply demonstrated by the president’s public statements leading up to the March 13 emergency declaration.
Making matters worse is the president’s messaging failure on community behavior.
What is needed is a “fireside chat” admonishing the public to behave with respect, civility, and consideration for grocery store clerks and other front-line workers.
Instead, the horror stories are mounting, even as the president congratulates himself for predicting the COVID-19 pandemic “before it was called a pandemic.” (Which many news sources were quick to show were false.)
Panic-buying began setting in days before the emergency declaration, and people also began rushing to break plans for trips, weddings and other get-togethers.
On March 11, reporter Amanda Mull of The Atlantic noted the emotional toll on workers confronted by one worried, panicked customer after another, including those who deal with customers by phone.
“Often, the people … managing the underlying fear and panic are overwhelmed and undertrained hourly workers or customer-service agents, who now form the de facto front line of pandemic response in the United States,” she wrote.
Three days after the emergency declaration, Pro Publica’s Alexandra Zaya reported on panic-buying in grocery stores, reporting: “We’re maneuvering past one another in crowded aisles and fighting over frozen food. We’re waiting in snaking lines and exchanging money with tired cashiers, who say they have been working for six days straight and have never seen so many customers in their lives.”
The situation is especially threatening for the many store clerks who are elderly or have underlying health issues and cannot afford to give up their jobs.
Where are the CEOs?
The absence of national leadership on matters of public concern has been a pattern over the last three years, and the COVID-19 crisis is yet another test for the ability of individual CEOs to step in, step up, and lead the public on a common cause.
With COVID-19, the results have been mixed. Some retailers of non-essential goods proactively closed their stores, and some in that group have guaranteed pay for their workers, at least for the present.
The more immediate burden is on groceries and pharmacies, which have been told to remain open during the crisis. Some have begun taking steps to reduce risk, such as opening early for senior shoppers, but many others have been caught flat-footed.
Based on the reporting so far, there are a number of steps that CEOs and business owners in the grocery and pharmacy sectors can take to demonstrate leadership and reduce risks:
1. Review and implement OSHA guidance on COVID-19.
2. Establish an employee helpline for assistance with both emotional and financial issues.
3. Assign extra staff to manage customer flow, calm customers, and ensure that OSHA guidance is followed.
4. Provide signage that directs customers to a hotline, instead of peppering frontline workers with their questions and concerns.
5. Communicate with customers and clients by any means at hand — on websites, by email, social media and letters-to-editors — to promote and support civility and responsible behavior.
Above all, every CEO — those who have been lavishly and disproportionately rewarded for their labor compared to the average worker — needs to give serious thought to how they accumulated their wealth, and how to help remediate the desperate situation now faced by their employees and millions of other fellow citizens in this time of crisis.
Image credit: Leon Kaye
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.