A look inside: The final hours in Macy's Herald Square before all stores shut temporarily because of coronavirus

Key Points
  • Macy's was the last major department store chain in America to address consumers about its plans this week to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 
  • I visited its Herald Square flagship store on Tuesday to see what was going on. 
  • The company on Tuesday afternoon announced that all stores would close nationwide through March 31. 
A few people pass by Macy's Herald Square location on March 17, before it shut to the public because of COVID-19.
Source: Lauren Thomas, CNBC

Macy's was the last major department store chain in America to lay out a plan for its stores this week to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. 

That's as dozens of retailers began shutting their doors temporarily since last Friday to try to encourage consumers, and workers, to stay home. 

Public health officials are urging people to stay home as much as possible to stem transmission of the highly contagious virus. Some places like San Francisco have implemented shelter-in-place orders to limit foot traffic. COVID-19 cases surpassed 200,000 worldwide on Wednesday

On Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of Macy's stores across the country were still open for business, including its sprawling flagship location in Herald Square in Manhattan. I decided to take a trip to Midtown, from my Upper East Side apartment, to see what shopping — if any — was taking place there. 

Come to find out, this would end up being the final few hours that Macy's — which bills itself as "America's department store" — was open for business through at least March 31. 

Late Tuesday, the company announced plans to close the roughly 750 stores it operates nationwide, sending roughly 130,000 employees, including those that work for Bloomingdale's and Bluemercury, home. 

When I entered the store Tuesday at about noon, I was greeted by two store workers on the main floor near the beauty department who were wearing masks to try to protect themselves from COVID-19. 

One of them, an older male Macy's employee who asked that I not use his name to protect his job, said he had "not heard anything" from the company regarding a potential closure. "All they care about is money," he said, seemingly frustrated. 

Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette had said in a memo to customers on March 12 that the company had put more "enhanced cleaning measures" in place in stores, to try to create a safer environment for consumers as the virus was still spreading. 

COVID-19 is similar to the flu, according to the World Health Organization. Whenever someone with the virus coughs or exhales, they release droplets of infected fluid that can land on nearby surfaces and can infect another person who comes in contact. 

March 12 was the same day that New York City Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency, just hours after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced new restrictions for large events and businesses. A day before, on March 11, the National Basketball Association said it would be suspending the pro basketball season indefinitely. And President Donald Trump said he would be restricting travel to the U.S. from more than two dozen European countries. 

Gennette also announced an emergency leave and pay policy for any worker who might be infected by the virus, or who is required to self-quarantine for two weeks because of it. Macy's will cover two-weeks worth of pay, he said. 

"Our stores are open to serve our customers and we hope to see you soon," Gennette said just six days ago. 

One customer looks at an Apple Watch inside of Macy's, the last day the store in Herald Square was open before it was shut down because of the coronavirus.
Source: Lauren Thomas, CNBC

By Tuesday, Nordstrom had announced it was closing all of its department stores across the U.S., while J.C. Penney and Kohl's reduced their hours. A walk down Fifth Avenue to get to Macy's was quite eerie. Adidas, Tiffany, Zara and Nike, among others, were all closed. 

Inside Macy's Herald Square store, it was mostly workers, with bottles of cleaning spray in hand, pacing the floors and chatting among themselves. The windows of the stores were full of mannequins in bright, spring-colored outfits. Unfortunately, that is likely the last thing many people are thinking about buying right now. 

The shoppers that I spoke to were mostly from out of town. 

One woman, who asked that I not use her name, had planned a trip to New York from Ireland for the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade, which was called off because of the virus. 

"Everything is closed down," she said, wearing a green turtleneck sweater, holding a dress in her hand and looking at another. "I really have nothing else to do." 

Some carve-outs within the Herald Square store, like the multiple Starbucks locations and a Burberry shop, were already dark and closed off. Some brands had taken it upon themselves to shut down sooner. 

One shopper was still looking at an Apple Watch in the space dedicated to Apple, even though the tech giant had closed all of its standalone retail locations outside of Greater China as of Friday. 

Burberry was already closed inside of Macy's earlier in the week.
Source: Lauren Thomas, CNBC

Another group of consumers still out shopping this week when the rest of the world is holed up at home: College students. 

I found one in Macy's on Tuesday buying a few pairs of socks. School was closed. She had little else to do in a city that was day-by-day starting to look more like a ghost town. 

"People think it's like the end of the world," said Claire, a 25-year-old student at Parsons School of Design in New York. "I think we have to be more optimistic." 

Mostly just Macy's workers pace the main floor, around the beauty department, on March 17.
Source: Lauren Thomas, CNBC

It is likely Macy's will take a sales hit because of these closures. The question is, how big of one. 

When it announced it was shutting its doors this week, Macy's did not saying anything about its earnings outlook. Nordstrom, for comparison, withdrew its full-year forecast and said it has already seen "a broad-based deceleration in customer demand over the past couple of weeks, particularly in markets most affected by the virus." 

When Macy's reported its latest quarterly results the morning of Feb. 25, Gennette said: "We expect a slowdown. We have seen a slowdown ... Nothing concerning yet, but we're watching this one very, very carefully." 

That was, notably, before the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic by WHO. And before it was declared a national emergency in the U.S. 

Macy's was already struggling to turn its business around, before this virus hit. 

Earlier this year, it set a forecast for same-store sales, on an owned plus licensed basis, to be down 1% to flat three years from now, in fiscal 2022. On Feb. 4, it announced a massive restructuring plan, where it will be shuttering 125 stores and cutting 2,000 corporate jobs over the next three years in a hunt for growth. It has poured money into its off-price business and upgrading its website, as it looks to appeal to younger consumers today. 

The coronavirus was the last thing Macy's needed. It is likely having to put a lot of these plans on hold, just to make it through the next few weeks, and months. 

Macy's has a market cap of about $1.9 billion. Its shares have fallen more than 75% over the past 12 months. Since January, the stock is down over 63%. 

Coronavirus closures are a big deal for already weak retailers: Analyst
Coronavirus closures are a big deal for already weak retailers: Analyst