I’m tabling my discussion of brand representation until next month, because I want to talk about an “in-the-news” topic. Nothing to do with the election, thank goodness. You’re on your own with that. But this is something that likely will affect our brick-and-mortar business procedures and our goodwill within our communities, potentially shaping portions of our industry for years to come: At the moment, the big issue is the coronavirus, COVID-19.
Relax. I’m not jumping on the doomsday wagon, announcing the sky is falling or giving out decorating tips for your HAZMAT lesson studios. Nor am I dismissing it as a “hoax” or minimizing the very real concerns about it. But the worldwide mobilization to combat the spread of the virus fuels a fearful state of mind among a broad swath of consumers. I think it’s in our best interest to consider how we can deal with the variety of problems we could face from this pandemic. While COVID-19 may have faded from the headlines by the time you read this, the fact that it has dominated the news makes it likely that another disease roller coaster will show up soon. Yes, a lot of the coverage is hype, in the same way that the snow squall of my youth is now grist for reports of Yeti sightings. But the virus and its impacts are real, and the very fact that people are up in arms means that we have to deal with anxious consumers’ expectations, whatever the reality may be.
First, a note for perspective. In 1918-19, just over a hundred years ago, a pandemic flu ran rampant throughout the world. Certainly, public health measures were more primitive, but we also didn’t have widespread air travel — or even that many automobiles. People stayed close to home, didn’t go to big sporting events, and the population was both more spread out and smaller. Yet the influenza epidemic of 1918-19 killed more than 50 million people at a time when the global population was just under 2 billion. It is estimated that 20 percent of the world population — about 380 million people — caught the disease, which would give it about a 13-percent mortality rate. Thankfully, COVID-19 is nowhere near as virulent.
But before this health scare even blew up, I was already getting calls from nervous mothers wanting to bring their child’s band instrument in for disinfection because their kid had the flu. Concerns about transmission in lesson rooms or from our restrooms were expressed. Even without COVID-19, people are a little uncomfortable with potential contagion.
So, we’re coming up with some information and protocols to calm nerves and actually do some good. We’ve put together a pamphlet to give customers some home cleaning tips, and we’ll follow up with a video. Why don’t we just grab some extra money and offer a “corona-clean” service? In this litigious society, do you want to risk — or defend a claim — that a horn you “disinfected” caused a child or an employee to fall ill? Sure, it’s unlikely to happen. And everyone should know that McDonald’s coffee is hot. But defending that is still expensive. So, it makes sense (and it’s good public relations) to visibly step up housekeeping, waste disposal and rental instrument prep. This is not a job that existing institutions can handle well enough to quell all fears. As I write this, an announcement that all local Cleveland buses will be disinfected every day just showed up in my news feed. I’m sure plenty of other businesses and groups will be adding measures. People are rethinking travel, business meetings and attendance at sporting events. The response has been as thorough as anything I’ve ever seen.
So, what are we doing? We’re stocking studios with hand sanitizer and wipes for those who want them. We now keep sanitizer next to the point-of- sale iPad used for card signatures. We’re doubling up on bathroom maintenance. Just as important, we’re posting the steps we’re taking so our customers can see them.
It’s also a good time to discuss lesson attendance policies regarding illness. Teachers don’t want to be closeted with a contagious student, and parents want to keep a sick child home … usually. I’m certain there will be some pushback about tuition credit when a student is ill, regardless of what that policy states. It’s a bit of a minefield, but coming up with a policy that will be seen as reasonable to both student and teacher is in our best interests. This will only become a bigger issue over time.
On top of any prudent precautions we take, the public relations effort is increasingly important because many of our businesses are already feeling the effects of spooked consumers. I personally believe the greatest long-term danger from COVID-19 is economic. I’ve already watched some households go into cocoon mode, and it’s an even greater incentive to shop online when you’re afraid to go out in public for fear of influenza zombies roaming the streets. A number of suppliers have already let us know that shipments are at least interrupted from the Pacific Rim, and a kneejerk reaction to close borders will only exacerbate that. I fully expect to see closings, layoffs and other bad economic news as a result of plugged supply chains and consumer fear, and there will be ripples going on for months, possibly into the fourth quarter of 2020 and beyond.
But I also think that it’s part of a societal shift that we can’t ignore. Even if this virus fades into relative obscurity — as H1N1, SARS and “swine” flu have — there will be another. And the already fearful will again stress out about the new flu or other contagious bug. Guarding against disease transmission becomes part of our “new normal.” If we address concerns — or better, anticipate them — we can stay ahead of the trend and be seen as a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. If you want customers to walk in the door, letting them know you are on top of things and concerned for everyone’s welfare is a good look.
If you feel all this angst-filled preparedness is just so much hand wringing, you’re entitled to think that (although the scientific community disagrees). But if your customers are worried and you don’t seem to be, be prepared for a different kind of quarantine.
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