From 'touchless' pizza delivery to cancellations: How Kentucky companies are addressing the coronavirus

Responding to the rising COVID-19 threat in Kentucky, businesses imposed new restrictions on employees and raced to take more measures to head off the risks.

As the new coronavirus spreads across the U.S., into Kentucky and neighboring states, companies have scrambled to protect employees by canceling travel to conferences and other work sites. In hundreds of workplaces, some employees were ordered to work from home.

UPS and Kentucky’s largest automotive manufacturers, Ford and Toyota, said Monday they are asking workers who must be at work to heed precautions by using hand sanitizers and washing hands frequently.

The virus has slammed world economies, with U.S. markets plummeting again Monday after a brutal last week, when four days of losses rivaled the 2008 financial crisis.

“It just feels like 9/11 right now,” said Dan Hartlage, principal at Guthrie/Mayes Public Relations in Louisville.

Hartlage was set to travel to Boulder, Colorado, this week to lead a media training session with the leaders of a company due to debut a film at South by Southwest, the massive tech and music festival in Austin, Texas. But that festival was canceled on Friday when major sponsors bailed because of the virus risks.

A trader passes a hand sanitizing station on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell noted that the coronavirus "poses evolving risks to economic activity." (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The Colorado client’s cancellation was followed by another in Los Angeles 18 hours later. The California company had lined up Hartlage to provide training in dealing with the media for March 16. But it was nixed because employees were ordered to work remotely for now.

The company didn’t want to risk infecting employees who would have to return to the office for something non-essential, Hartlage said.

“It’s hard to argue with either decision,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

While Guthrie/Mayes didn’t provide the training, Hartlage said he hopes his firm gets the opportunity in another month or two if the virus is no longer a threat.

“The business is not going away. It’s being delayed,” he said.

Still, multiply those cancellations by thousands around the country, Hartlage said, and the hit is massive to the hotel, airline and overall business travel industry.

Precautions around pizza deliveries

At Papa John’s, the international pizza chain based in Louisville, a spike in demand for deliveries in South Korea amid virus fears may predict what’s ahead for the U.S. The company saw a big increase in delivery over the past several weeks as people choose to stay at home, spokeswoman Madeline Chadwick said in an email.

Meanwhile, the company has begun an additional precaution by requiring all drivers at its restaurants to wash their hands before and after deliveries. It’s also asking third-party or “aggregator” drivers to use hand sanitizer before they pick up an order.

Another precaution may be added, if needed: Touchless delivery, in which a driver brings the order to a location and waits several feet away while the customer retrieves the pizza box. Papa John’s competitor Pizza Hut implemented “contactless delivery” in China to reduce the risk of person-to-person transmission, according to Business Insider.

Travel cancellations, video calls

At Ford’s two auto plants in Louisville and at Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, ordering workers to stay at home isn’t an option. Both companies reported they are trying to keep the assembly lines moving as normal and urging employees to heed the advice to wash hands frequently.

“It’s a very fluid situation. We’re looking closely at contingency plans,” Toyota spokesman Rick Hesterberg said Monday. 

The good news for the factory with 8,000 full-time employees is that supply chains so for far have held steady thanks to having 60% to 70% of parts and component suppliers located in North America. Parts also are still flowing from Japan, Hesterberg said.

The company has trimmed travel that’s not essential and asked employees to hold meetings and training sessions over Skype to keep risks in check, he said.

At UPS, the company is trying to keep operations on track and following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Even with extra hand-washing and the use of sanitizers in all locations, “you can’t sort packages remotely,” spokesman Jim Mayer said.

Humana, the Louisville based health insurance giant, altered its travel policy, halting all international business travel and asking employees to cancel non-essential travel in the U.S., including to conferences and trade shows, spokeswoman Kate Marx said in an email.

“We will reassess this policy every 30 days. In addition, we are discouraging personal travel outside the U.S.,” she said.

Being in the health care business carries an added obligation to promote and enhance the well-being of employees and the people Humana serves. The company will “do whatever we can,” Marx wrote, “to minimize disruption to our ability to care for our health plan members and patients.”

Follow Courier-Journal reporter Grace Schneider on Twitter: @gesinfk.

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