Guest Column

Retail risk: Government should act to protect employees and public

By  and , Guest Columnist Published: April 06, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Guest Columnist

Kevin Mireles

Kevin Mireles is a Memphis-based technology and analytics professional, and concerned husband and dad.


Gregory Miles Blumenthal
Guest Columnist

Gregory Miles Blumenthal

Gregory Miles Blumenthal is principal at GMBS Consulting. He is the coauthor of the 2019 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet and conducts research and mapping in support of public health and social impact policymaking.

Given the dramatic spread of COVID-19, workplaces have to assume that every interaction with customers and colleagues represents a potentially deadly threat.

Health official: Adhering to social distancing guidelines crucial

The risk of infection increases not just based on the number of people in a room in close proximity at the same time, but the total number of people you come in contact with. So, if the community infection rate is only 1%, even just interacting with 10 people results in a 10% likelihood of encountering someone who’s infected.

<strong>Kevin Mireles</strong>

Kevin Mireles

<strong>Gregory Blumenthal</strong>

Gregory Blumenthal

If you work in a retail store, hospital or another high-traffic business, where you interact with dozens, if not hundreds of people a day or week, your probability of encountering someone who’s been infected with COVID-19 is higher.

Unfortunately, with COVID-19, you do not need to have a fever or other symptoms in order to spread the disease, so someone looking perfectly healthy could wander into your store, and infect you or your patrons.

Major retailers are beginning to take precautions, providing sneeze guards to protect cashiers, limiting the number of people in stores and mandating 6 feet between patrons, but given the life-and-death nature of the current situation, we cannot rely on businesses to do the right thing by themselves.

In other high-risk professions, detailed rules outline specific requirements that are rigorously enforced. Every commercial construction zone has clearly stated mandates regarding hard hats and goggles, that are enforced by government, insurance and employer safety inspectors. Fire marshals monitor occupancy levels in clubs and other settings to minimize fire risks, and public-health inspectors can shut down restaurants for failing sanitary inspections.

In the absence of state and federal guidelines, Shelby County and other local governments should take a leadership role to mandate rules for retailers and other employers during the pandemic. Inspectors should enforce guidelines that minimize COVID-19 spread and reduced-maximum occupancy limits to avoid crowding inside stores.

If businesses don’t take proper precautions, they are putting themselves in legal jeopardy. They won’t be able to say the risks were unforeseeable, and there are likely plenty of plaintiff attorneys who will be ready to sue because of a failure to follow health and safety precautions during a pandemic. You can already imagine the advertisements: “Were you or a loved one sickened, hospitalized or killed as a result of working or visiting a business that put profits over public safety?”

Let’s take action now, and mandate clear employee and public-health guidelines for businesses.

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