The economic impact of the coronavirus has certainly been unpredictable, something Meghan Bell learned firsthand on the night of March 11. That was when in-person classes were suspended at Michigan State University, which is across the street from the popular bar and grill she manages.
“When the college students discovered … that they didn’t have to go to class, we actually got more business than usual” that night, Bell, manager of The Peanut Barrel in East Lansing, said the following day.
Then again, she knew that the virus, which has rattled the global economy and shuttered businesses elsewhere, was likely to eventually keep customers home. And that’s what happened March 16, the day restaurants and other businesses centered on social gathering closed for in-person gatherings, per the orders of state officials.
“At this point, we’re just kind of taking it day by day,” she said prior to the state order’s issuance. “It is something that is uncharted territory for all of us, so we’re all just trying to figure out every day, ‘OK, how do we adjust today?’ or, ‘What do we need to adjust for tomorrow?’”
Bell was one of many Greater Lansing businesspeople keeping a wary eye on a pandemic that has flummoxed everyone from physicians to politicians in finding a suitable response, leaving shoppers and salespeople caught in between and unsure of the future.
“I think the next month or two will tell us a whole lot,” Charles Ballard, an economics professor at MSU, said in mid-March as business impacts became more apparent.
“We don’t know how bad it’s going to be, but it has the potential to be bad enough that it would really have some pretty substantial adverse effects on some companies, and there are limits to what any individual company can do when its revenues go way down.”
What businesses still operating can best do is keep the coronavirus at bay to “flatten” its impact and minimize a surge of cases that could have an even greater negative economic and health impact, according to Linda Vail, Ingham County’s health officer.
“We don’t have a vaccine. We don’t have a cure. We don’t have a specific treatment,” Vail said. “What we have to protect ourselves is people listening to these issues about staying home; quarantines if they’ve been in high-risk areas or in contact; staying home when they’re sick; and doing all these diligent things about hand hygiene and not touching your face and getting these workplaces clean.”
At General Motors’ two facilities in Lansing and Delta Township, proactive efforts were underway in March along those lines. Taking cues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, GM said it has instituted a number of initiatives to get ahead of the threat, including:
Travel bans to a number of Asian and European nations impacted by the coronavirus, including China, South Korea, Italy and Iran.
Restrictions on air travel both domestically and abroad, with senior leader approval needed.
New visitor protocols at all GM sites to keep employees, guests and facilities safe.
“The situation is very fluid, but we are continuing to monitor it closely,” GM said in a statement. “GM’s focus has been on the health and safety of our employees first and then our business.” As of mid-March, GM reported no production disruptions in North America due to the coronavirus.
Strategies offered by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for businesses still operating include regular cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces, discouraging gatherings whether for meetings or for lunch, and limiting work travel and encouraging sick employees to stay home, among other recommendations.
“These recommended strategies apply at individual, organizational, and community levels. They apply to businesses, workplaces, schools, community organizations, health care institutions and individuals of all ages, backgrounds and health profiles,” the MDHHS said in a statement. “Everyone has some measure of responsibility to help limit the spread of this disease.”
Ballard is hopeful that the coronavirus pandemic’s lasting economic effects on mid-Michigan in particular and America in general will be less than that of the Great Recession more than a decade ago.
“I hope that a month from now I will still feel like I can say what I’m about to say … this still is way better, way easier for businesses than the dark, dark winter of ’08-’09,” Ballard said in mid-March. “I don’t think we’re heading to anything like that … maybe a mild recession, but not a catastrophe like what we had 12 years ago.”
How Businesses Can Counter the Coronavirus
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has assembled a list of community mitigation strategies recommended on an interim basis. For workplaces in particular, the MDHHS suggests:
Encouraging employees to stay home when sick, and notifying supervisors of illnesses
Communicating and reinforcing best practices for washing hands and covering coughs and sneezes
Regularly cleaning and disinfecting touched surfaces like doorknobs, keyboards, cellphones and light switches
Ensuring hand hygiene supplies are readily available throughout the workplace
Encouraging staff to telework when feasible, particularly people at risk of severe illness
Implementing social distancing measures as feasible, including limiting in-person meetings, canceling or postponing large gatherings, conferences and sporting events, and discouraging employees from eating meals in large-group settings
Limiting nonessential work travel and large work-related gatherings, such as staff meetings and after-work functions
SOURCE: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services