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Reopening retail won’t be easy, but these 4 steps will make it safe

Even in the best of times, reopening a store that’s been shuttered for weeks requires restocking, cleaning, building staffing schedules, and more. Amid this pandemic, it’s a far more complex logistical operation.

Reopening stores and restaurants is top of mind as some states take their first steps toward getting their economies moving again. But reopening these businesses is more complex than most people realize, and the “after” state will be very different from what we were used to before the pandemic.

Openings have never been done at the speed or scale about to be attempted. In normal times, fast-growing retailers might open a few dozen stores in a year; in the coming weeks they’ll need to reopen thousands of locations across the country—in a short timeframe, often with fewer staff due to furloughs and illness. And they’ll have to do this on an unpredictable rolling schedule, with strict health requirements that vary state by state.

It’s important for policy makers and the general public to understand what this involves so they have a realistic sense of what’s possible and what to expect. An estimated 630,000 retail locations have been closed nationwide, along with restaurants, fitness centers, and theaters. Opening these up must be done carefully and done well to protect local communities and prevent a resurgence of the coronavirus.

As a facilities management leader, I know that even in the best of times, reopening a store that’s been shuttered for weeks requires restocking, cleaning, testing equipment, building staffing schedules, and more. Amid this pandemic, it’s a far more complex logistical operation, and it will need to be managed remotely using tools like Zoom to train and coordinate local teams.

Here are four steps businesses need to take to reopen safely in the coming days and weeks.


Stores will need to ensure shopping carts, point-of-sale devices, and any other touchpoints are sanitized regularly, often multiple times a day. What used to be “clean to clean” is now “clean to disinfect.” And if a person at a location is found to be infected or symptomatic, the CDC recommends ventilating the area and waiting 24 hours before cleaning again.

This work will need to be documented to ensure it’s performed consistently and avoid potential liability. It requires retailers to acquire and distribute cleaning supplies on a vast scale, including disinfectant, wipes, hand sanitizer, and gloves, many of which are in short supply.


Interiors have to be redesigned to ensure safe distancing for shoppers and employees. This includes installing plexiglass “sneeze guards” at checkout counters and laying floor decals to indicate one-way aisles. Outside stores, retailers need procedures in place to check customers are wearing masks and limit the number who enter at one time.

The big-box retailers, which have remained open in the pandemic, give a taste of what this will look like. Walmart is allowing no more than five customers for every 1,000 feet of floor space, or 20% of its normal capacity. Home Depot is also limiting customers, and shortening its hours. Each store needs to decide what rules make sense for its location and put up signs so customers know what’s expected of them.


Personal protective equipment (PPE) will be needed for all employees, and workers may have to fill out a daily health questionnaire to confirm they are fit to work. Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King, Tim Hortons, and Popeyes, is sending 15,000 thermometers so it can confirm workers are healthy before they start their shifts. Stores will have to balance these safety measures with economic and practical realities.

Retailers also need policies for accommodating “at risk” employees, such as elderly workers, and for those who refuse to return to work, perhaps because they have vulnerable family members at home. The National Retail Federation developed a 10-page checklist that includes these other considerations.


Being seen to act is nearly as important as acting itself, since consumers need to feel confident they’re protected. A survey this month found that only about one third of shoppers would feel safe venturing into shopping in malls and department stores. Expect to see prominent signage and marketing campaigns educating consumers about sanitation efforts, and visible displays of cleaning.

With some states granting permission to reopen, national chains have been hard at work preparing to roll out these measures nationwide. It’s incumbent on all of us to follow the guidelines they issue and be flexible as we inch back to normality. Expect lines outside stores, shorter opening hours, and for businesses to occasionally close and reopen. We can do this safely together, but this is our new reality.

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