Preparing for Coronavirus

Mar 4, 2020
*Editor's note: This article was updated on November 22, 2020 to reflect the latest information from the CDC.

What do you do when things go wrong?

I had a friend who worked for a chemical plant many years ago. He was on the emergency response team, trained to deal with all the things that can go wrong when you manufacture some of the most dangerous substances in the world. As he explained it, “When something goes wrong, I look where the rest of the people are fleeing from and head that way.”

As leaders, that’s our job. What is broken down? Which lane is stuck? What person didn’t show up this morning? Which truck is late? Often it seems that running stores is hopping from one fire to the next, always fighting, solving, but never relaxing.

People make a real difference—in fact, great teams make it all work. Mentorship, training, and development are tools to make managers into leaders and to help a store run like it should. You know you’re doing your job as a leader when problems come and are solved by your team before you get there!

But sometimes something happens that no one is prepared for. Sometimes the problems come from left field, so far outside the boundary that your previous experience isn’t enough.

I am sure you have read with growing alarm about the COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus that has been so much in the news. What started in Wuhan, China—the home base of our IGA China headquarters—is now expanding to the rest of the world. As of this writing, well over 90,000 people are known to have been infected with the virus worldwide, and a number of U.S. counties and states have declared a state of emergency as the number of infected and death toll begin to rise.

Understanding the elevated risk of bringing our IGA family together at this time, I made the decision to postpone the IGA Global Rally, scheduled for March 9 through 11 in Nashville. It was not an easy decision, particularly knowing the burden it would place on all of you who were planning to attend, from our retailers, LDCs, brands, and of course the IGA team who worked so hard to make it all happen. But safety has to be our first priority, and I appreciate the outpouring of support from our attendees and our friends throughout the industry. 

With the Rally decision behind us, we must now move to the most important task at hand—helping our IGA retailers prepare for what's coming next. What does all this mean for us grocers? What could we expect to happen in the coming weeks? How should we prepare for the possibility of mass infections in North America, or other parts of the world?

What the CDC Says

First, the facts, directly from the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia:

  • While it may be possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface or an object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, the virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
  • This virus seems to have a longer incubation period, making it harder to screen and increasing the likelihood of the virus spreading undetected.
  • Transmission in China has been falling for over a week, suggesting that the containment protocols they used are working.
  • A vaccine for the Coronavirus will likely be deployable within a year to a year and a half.
  • It’s possible that at some point, widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States will occur with the biggest impact among people over 65 and those with underlying health issues. 

While the WHO recently raised the mortality rate for COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus, the majority of people in the medical community agree the risk of contracting it is still quite low, and for most of the infected, the virus will be very mild. But the problem for all of us is that we aren’t scientists and we aren’t experts in disease transmission. And like our communities, when we don’t know for sure, we are apt to be afraid.

Scenes of ghost town streets in China and grocery workers in hazmat suits add to the fear. And good information on what to do to protect your friends and family has been hard to find.

What IGA China Has Done

Our IGA team in Wuhan, and all over China, has been dealing with this challenge more than anyone. They have had to suffer quarantine, travel restrictions, and the closure of offices, factories, restaurants, bars, and nearly all other public facilities.

But IGA stores have stayed open.

They’ve had to figure out new ways of doing business—how to protect associates, how to get associates to work when public transportation was halted, how to engage with their supply chain when much of it was shut down. But as big as the crisis has been, as unusual a challenge as they have faced, they have done what IGA leaders have always done: they have stepped up and led.

Our owners, managers, and associates have rallied and come up with stop gap measures to keep every store operating and the shelves stocked with food. Because the simple fact is, people can’t survive without what we do—everyone needs access to food.

As a consequence, shoppers have rallied to us, too. Business is up significantly in their stores as shoppers turn to their community partners in time of need.

The Road Ahead for IGA USA

Is it likely we face the same hardships here in the U.S., or in other IGA markets? Probably not. By now we have much more information on the disease and the facts are starting to separate from the myths. But even if not, we may see consumer fear drive short term behaviors that could significantly impact our business.

Some considerations to keep in mind, based on our experience in IGA China and general information from the CDC:

  • Employee and shopper safety: The CDC maintains that wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds—especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing—is one of the best defenses against the disease. Are your employees up-to-date on hand washing and other sanitation protocol that will protect them and the shoppers they serve?
  • Supply issues: Panic buying of cleaning supplies, antiseptic soap and wipes, over-the-counter cold and flu medicines, bottled water, canned goods, and other shelf stable foods might clean out your shelves. Just like our stores do before a storm, fire, or hurricane, we need to see being in stock as an extension of our promise to take care of our community. Talk to your wholesaler about anticipated demand and order now.
  • Staffing: What happens if your employees get sick? Or schools close down and they don’t have childcare? Or if public transportation is temporarily halted and your associates can’t get to work? Now’s the time to prepare contingency plans to keep your store staffed.

Whether this is a severe public health emergency or a mild one is yet to be known. Either way, being informed and prepared positions your IGA store exactly where it should be—the community resource for taking care of our communities. That’s why we are gathering the insights from our Wuhan IGA China office, industry association partners like FMI, and the CDC to arm you with the facts and resources you need to continue to serve your shoppers and communities well.

If IGA China is a model, then shoppers will reward you with increased sales in the short term, and increased loyalty well after this virus leaves the news. And this is what IGA does best. We are leaders in our communities, and our care and determination ensure our brand is truly Hometown Proud.

Visit for all the available resources, including the latest updates from the CDC, first-hand accounts from ground zero in Chinaincluding a list of what you should do now, preparedness protocol from FMI, and IGA Institute training on hand washing.

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