Walmart, Starbucks and others face a new coronavirus challenge: Sick workers and fearful customers

Key Points
  • Walmart, Uber and Starbucks are among the companies that have reported a worker who has tested positive for COVID-19.
  • With the quickly rising number of cases, more companies will likely be in this situation as public health officials work to contain the outbreak.
  • "Morally, ethically, you have to tell the public," said Dr. Irwin Redlener.  But, he acknowledged, the disclosure "still may keep people out of the store."
A person wears a face mask as a precaution against coronavirus in New York, on March 2, 2020.
Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

An Uber driver. A Starbucks barista. A Walmart store employee.

Retailers, fast-food chains and customer service-related companies face a new challenge as the coronavirus outbreak spreads in the U.S.: Some of their workers are getting sick.

Walmart became one of the latest U.S. companies to confirm it had a sick employee on Monday. The female employee works in Cynthiana, a small town about 30 miles northeast of Lexington, Kentucky. She became the state's first resident to test positive for COVID-19.

The coronavirus outbreak has changed how consumer-facing brands do business in recent weeks. Starbucks and Dunkin' banned reusable mugs. McDonald's stepped up frequency of cleaning. Some Taco Bell and Wendy's franchises are using tamper-proof packaging to keep delivery drivers from swiping fries. Target is putting limits on purchases of hand sanitizer and some cleaning products to keep the items stocked on shelves. It also is wiping down checkout lanes and touchscreens every 30 minutes. 

Even with prevention measures, companies may see the number of sick employees rise, said Dr. David Zieg, a family medicine doctor and consultant for human resources firm Mercer.

"We can take all the precautions we need, but cases will pop up," he said. "It's the nature of this particular virus."

The number of cases in the U.S. is rising so quickly, the case counts are changing by the hour and local officials are having trouble keeping up. There were roughly 100 cases across the U.S. a week ago. By Tuesday afternoon, infections climbed above 800 across the country

The size and scope of some companies also increases the odds. Walmart, for example, has stores across the country and is the nation's largest private employer with 1.5 million workers in the U.S.

When he spoke about the first case in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear acknowledged Monday that employers may worry about facing stigma from customers who are fearful of the virus.

"For everybody who has been through that Walmart, I know it's going to make you nervous," Beshear said at a news conference, according to a report in the Lexington Herald Leader. "Just because you've been there doesn't mean that you have the coronavirus. We have to stay calm."

When a worker gets sick

If a company has an employee who tests positive for COVID-19, Zieg said it should notify employees and consult public health officials. He said the public health officials should help decide which of the company's customers may have been exposed to that person and could be at risk.

If a customer walks by a sick employee's cash register, for example, he or she is unlikely to be at risk, he said. But a customer could get sick if they spent a prolonged amount of time with that employee, such as getting help from them in the try-on room of a clothing store.

He said companies should be credited, not blamed, for alerting the public about sick workers, since it can inspire greater awareness and greater vigilance. 

At the moment, public health officials are trying to contain the virus as much as possible, which is why they are trying to trace a patient's recent interactions. 

After Walmart learned it had a sick employee, the company said in a statement that it "reinforced our cleaning and sanitizing protocols" and kept the store open after consulting state officials and health experts. It announced a new emergency leave policy Tuesday for employees who get sick.

An Uber driver from Queens, New York tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday night. Uber said it's worked with New York health officials to determine if any passengers were exposed to the illness of the man, who is a independent contractor.

Telling the public

Starbucks closed a downtown Seattle store Thursday night, after a barista there tested positive for COVID-19 and notified management. Other employees at the coffee shop were informed, then Starbucks told all its U.S. employees in an email and shared an open letter with the public on its website.

Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said the company has been transparent because it recognizes customers' close connection to their coffee shops. Some people know their barista by name. Others stop for a coffee each day as part of their commute. That means the customer may react differently to news of a sick Starbucks employee, he said.

"That barista, that partner is part of your daily routine," he said. "To me, it is a natural way for it to hit you. It's a natural way for it to resonate with you, and that's why we take it so seriously."

Thirteen employees who worked with the sick barista at the Seattle store are keeping themselves isolated for two weeks, Borges said.

Starbucks reopened the store Monday morning after a "deep clean" and consultation with health officials. He said the store took longer to reopen to resolve staffing issues. It is a Starbucks Reserve, a store with exclusive roasts and drinks that require a more highly-trained staff.

"I know the situation with COVID-19 is evolving quickly and we might hear about other impacted partners in our Starbucks community, here and around the country," Rossann Williams, the chain's executive vice president of the U.S. company-operated business and Canada, wrote in a letter. "When we do, we will quickly enact similar measures – closing the store, deep cleaning, and taking care of every partner."

Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said companies must strike the right tone when they notify customers about a sick employee, and not use "alarmist language."

He recommended sharing specific details about the company's response, such as telling customers about their thorough cleaning of the affected store or the results for other employees who were tested.

"If you don't admit it, there may be liability there," he said. "Morally, ethically, you have to tell the public." But, he acknowledged, the disclosure "still may keep people out of the store."

—CNBC's Deirdre Bosa and Amelia Lucas contributed to this report.

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