Walmart’s efficiency at combining selection, services, and low prices may well be driving something else to its shopping aisles: COVID-19.
Experts in the field of epidemiology say that once a community-spread case of novel coronavirus appears, it means that the virulent, deadly virus is entrenched in that community.
Yet despite the news Tuesday of two new, community-spread cases of the disease in New Bern, Walmart continued to drive customers in search of good prices and, perhaps, toilet paper.
Gov. Roy Cooper issued a stay-at-home executive order that took effect at 5 p.m. Monday, but the order was so full of exemptions, it is virtually pointless.
Two obvious exemptions are grocery stores and pharmacies. Other things, like clothing, toys, electronics, garden supplies, and furnishings, are generally understood to be non-essential. Stores that specialize in those categories have been shuttered.
That gives Walmart (and in all fairness, Target) a commercial advantage over competitors. Like all grocery stores and pharmacies that are staying open, so is Walmart, and while it’s open, it may as well sell kayaks and sun dresses, too.
The critical mass of retail goods at Walmart is creating another critical mass, one that nurtures and propagates a microscopic organism that can infect people without them knowing it, bake over a period of days while being contagious, and spread easily and widely. Most people who catch it feel fine or barely sick, but about one third of the time, people get very sick and sometimes die.
To try to keep this from happening, throughout the state, schools have shut down to on-campus teaching. Only faculty and staff are allowed on campus so that they can hold their classes online.
Meanwhile, students attended class in the virtual world, using computers, tablets, and smart phones to listen to lectures and access course materials.
Businesses in New Bern’s cherished, historic downtown were also obeying the stay-at-home order. Some restaurants struggled to remain open, offering curbside service.
It is clear that some take the COVID-19 pandemic more seriously than others, and some hardly seem to take it seriously at all. Worse, they take advantage of it, meanwhile putting the community at greater peril.
Walmart and Target are not alone. Moen, one of Craven County’s largest employers, is still in business, despite shutting down for two days to scrub away potential COVID-19 contamination from an employee who contracted the virus.
Even places like O’Reilly’s Auto Parts continue to stay open (check out the lively comments among employees unhappy about that).
As COVID-19 continues to spread in the community, leaders will continue to issue stricter orders — the kind of orders that should have been issued before the virus got out of hand.
That point will level the playing field, and the petri dishes like Walmart will be forced to surrender their competitive advantage and close the remaining few gateways that allow COVID-19 to spread.
But by then the damage will have been done.
Meanwhile, life presents its usual challenges. It’s April 1 and the rent/mortgage is due. So are car payments, utility bills, credit card payments, and on, and on.
For people forced out of work because of COVID-19, these are challenging times not just for their health but for their finances.
But it need not be so injurious. The solution is really very simple. The most effective thing President Trump can do to protect the American consumer is to declare a financial holiday — no bills due, no bills paid, for anyone — not the average consumer, not the local merchant, not the hospital, not the automaker.
The $1,200 stimulus check that will arrive in two to three weeks (two to three weeks too late) is going to be chewed up by garden variety bills, when what everyone needs is financial security.
They need groceries, electricity, gasoline, and connectivity.
If that sounds too complicated, imagine how complicated it was for the federal government to conjure up nearly $4 trillion (and counting) to service this ongoing natural disaster.
Too complicated? Then make it simple.