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Cruisin’ for some solutions

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Jordan Bateman: For a glimpse into what the world could look like in a month or two, consider the cruise industry.

As B.C.’s COVID-19 curve flattens and even Dr. Bonnie Henry herself starts hinting about restarting swathes of the provincial economy, virus-locked industries are working on preparing pandemic-safe business practices.

It may seem counterintuitive, given the handful of COVID-19 outbreaks on ships over the past few weeks, but the cruise industry and its effort to fight norovirus may provide a glimpse into the future for public life and consumer-facing businesses.

Fifteen years ago, norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships hit their peak, with 32 in 2006 alone. But by 2019, that number was down to nine, with thousands more sailings and millions more passengers (worldwide, 30 million people cruised in 2019). Nine outbreaks out of tens of thousands of sailings is a pretty good record.

How they did it may provide a small piece of the roadmap for other businesses to follow today: adapting hygiene standards in meaningful, visible, well-publicized ways.

From the moment you get on a cruise ship (at least Royal Caribbean, which my family enjoyed last year), you are reminded constantly to wash your hands. Much like the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, the reminders pop up everywhere.

How they did it may provide a small piece of the roadmap for other businesses to follow today.

There are posters. There is a funny video played at the evacuation muster drill. There are hand sanitizer stations near every elevator, shop, staircase, theatre, washroom, and bar. Restaurants have cheerful staff waiting at the door, spraying sanitizer on to your hands before you can enter, as they sing “washy, washy!” to you. TVs play “wash your hands” jingles every 10 minutes.

The reminders are constant, in-your-face, and (until COVID-19 arrived) effective. Our children, especially, were quickly programmed into hygiene experts.

That’s on top of what most passengers don’t see—the army of staff disinfecting surfaces and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.

It’s not a perfect system. For the people who suffered during those nine norovirus outbreaks, it obviously wasn’t enough. But for the tens of millions of passengers who sailed without incident, it worked.

Which brings us back to COVID-19 and consumer-facing businesses. They, and the associations running them, are actively planning for how they can operate while protecting customers and workers. Can they limit the number of people in a space? How many can they serve while ensuring they remain socially distant? Can they offer hand sanitizer? How do they improve online options? Are masks, even homemade cloth ones, now a must? What kind of automation will they need to accept?

Many businesses have already started – restaurants offer “contact-less” takeout while big box stores have curbside pickup and grocery stores have one-way aisles. These changes are just the start.

It’s important that consumers feel something substantial and visible has changed. After all, they will vote with their pocketbooks. They will avoid shops that make them feel insecure and instead head to places that seem to share their anxiety and demand for anti-COVID-19 measures.

These changes are just the start.

In short, how do they make people feel safe again?

After months in isolation, this will be a difficult task. Our brains have been rewired to accept the new normal of sticking close to home and only entering closed spaces for must-haves like groceries. We have developed a concern when people penetrate the six-foot “bubble” around us. Heck, there are people who disinfect every grocery item and Amazon box that arrives at their door; this mentality will be hard to shift. As a society, a huge proportion of us will be shy—anxious, even—about re-entering the “real” world.

My suspicion is that when restrictions are lifted, we will see a brief rush on stores and services, led by three types of people: those in absolute need of an item; brave extroverts; and those relieved to escape the house.

But I also suspect that burst will be short-lived, and business will slow again, as people measure personal risk. This is similar to what happened before Dr. Henry issued her stay-at-home orders: businesses were already struggling to stay open as people started hunkering down.

It was employers and citizens who led the way on reducing social interactions at the start of this pandemic. They will have to be the ones to lead us back out, too. They will—but only to places and situations where they feel safe.

It’s a lot to put on business owners already stretched to the max, both financially and emotionally. Many have already closed for good, through no fault of their own. They may have had a solid business plan, loyal customer base, great product and strong service, but they simply couldn’t survive months without revenue. Now they’re gone, and our communities are weaker for it.

If—and it remains a massive, if—public health officials do allow shops and restaurants to reopen in a modified way in mid-May, the businesses that have survived this two-month shutdown will have to find ways to adapt and ride out weeks (months?) of trying to rebuild their customer base.

Business owners may have had a solid business plan, loyal customer base, great product and strong service, but they simply couldn’t survive months without revenue.

Cruise lines, following the horror of COVID-19 breaking out on several ships, face that difficult challenge in an obvious, desperate way. But we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t think virtually every consumer-facing industry has that same problem. Business-as-usual simply isn’t going to happen: it’s going to be a series of small, visible steps to rebuild customer loyalty and acquisition.

It’s yet another challenge for reeling, desperate entrepreneurs.

Jordan Bateman has a long history of public policy work, championing small business and fiscal responsibility. Currently the Vice President, Communications & Marketing for the Independent Contractors and Business Association (ICBA), Jordan also served six years as the B.C. Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and was a two-term Langley Township Councillor.

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