In a matter of days, the outbreak of the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, have changed nearly every aspect of daily life. As the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. surges, federal, state, and city mandates about what kinds of businesses can continue to operate have changed dramatically from hour to hour.
Social distancing and working from home (for those fortunate enough to be in industries where that’s even possible) are the new normal — and apparently, so is online shopping. Some have turned to shopping as a welcome distraction from these tumultuous times, or as a means of supporting small businesses that are already hurting. Other shoppers are sending packages to a loved ones, and some people are simply bored. But if you're adding to your digital cart and, more importantly, clicking “buy," you may have worried about whether the virus can spread through the mail, as well as how the people producing and packaging orders, as well as the mail carriers delivering them, are staying safe and healthy.
We've spoken to experts to answer your most pressing questions.
Can the virus live on my mail or packages?
According to the CDC, there is a “very low risk” of the coronavirus spreading through mail that is “shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.”
“There should be less concern over infections from items that are shipped over [the course of multiple] days; most infections occur through droplets as when someone sneezes or coughs, and in most cases, you need a large viral load to be infected,” explains Dr. Frederick Davis, associate chair of the emergency department at LIJ (Long Island Jewish Medical Center), a New York area hospital. “The highest risk of transmission is usually within the first few minutes and decreases more over time, as most virus particles will begin to degrade once outside a living host.”
Dr. Niket Sonpal, an NYC-based internist and gastroenterologist and adjunct Professor at Touro College, points to a recent study analyzing how long the virus is able to live on steel, plastic, and cardboard. Though it can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard, “this was under ideal lab conditions, not ambient real-world temperatures,” Sonpal explains. “There have been no reported cases linked to shipments of merchandise.”
It’s ultimately a personal, not medically necessary, choice to take additional safety steps when opening your latest Amazon or Everlane buy. “If you need to be more precautious for your own tranquility, you can take other measures like wearing disposable gloves when opening mail and throwing away envelopes and packaging,” Sonpal says, especially if you are in contact with more vulnerable individuals. “I am of the mindset that concern and caution are valid, especially if you live or care for someone with a chronic condition or who is elderly.”
Though the risk is relatively low that a mail carrier “just coughed or sneezed on your mail right before handing it to you” — the most probable scenario of transmission of the coronavirus via mail — Sonpal says, “to play it safe, give up old habits like holding your mail in your mouth while you fumble for your keys, or ripping a package open with your teeth; don't place your face close to your mail or package, and once you have opened what's inside, clean your hands with sanitizer.”
Should I wash my purchases when I get them?
After carefully opening a boxed shipment of new threads, how concerned should we be about the potential of the coronavirus spreading via fabric? “This is not the main way the virus spreads, according to the CDC,” Sonpal explains. “Someone would have to be sick and coughing all over the clothes before packaging, and the package would have to get to you very rapidly.” However, research is still limited, and “there currently isn't much data to suggest how long this virus can live on fabric,” Davis adds. So you might consider taking extra precautions before trying on that amazing new dress or pair of jeans. “Because this is a novel virus and the world is still finding its footing when it comes to transmission, you can wash any new clothes with detergent if it will make you feel safer,” Sonpal suggests.
And there’s no reason to be more cautious (or even avoid) shipments of goods produced in or processed through countries with more confirmed cases than the U.S., including China, Italy, or Spain. “I would follow the same precautions as with any package,” Davis says
Am I putting mail carriers at risk?
Another factor to consider: how postal workers and brands’ employees that package and process online purchases are faring with increased online shopping. “UPS, USPS, and FedEx all say they are closely watching the latest from the health department and the Center for Disease Control ... they are huge companies that must take precautions, or they risk losing a large portion of their workforce and potentially infecting others,” Sonpal explains, noting that USPS added enhanced safety measures for their workers on Mar. 6. “Granted that our mail and delivery personnel are healthy and not working while sick, the risk of spreading the virus in that way is lower than person to person spread that has really fueled the outbreak,” Sonpal says.
Theresa Wu, chief of community at Ametti, a direct-to-consumer luggage brand, recommends customers request “delivery services to drop the package on the floor as opposed to transmitting by hand,” a safety measure already popular for food deliveries that's now being applied to fashion purchases to keep delivery people safe.
How are big brands coping?
A number of brands, from massive global businesses to indie luxury labels, say they’ve taken steps to protect both their employees and customers. For those working in manufacturing and processing facilities, these measures include required social distancing, staggered breaks and shifts, more frequent cleaning, and making hand sanitizers and masks available to their employees.
“We have ramped up the frequency of regularly scheduled cleanings and sanitization efforts in our distribution centers to ensure the safety of our employees and customers,” reads a statement from Gap. Nordstrom, which is headquartered in the heavily impacted Seattle area, shared a similar message: “The health and safety of our employees and customers is our top priority, and we’re taking steps across our business with that focus in mind,” the company said in a statement.
Caraa, a luxury gym bag label that manufactures in China, has received a number of safety questions from customers, says Aaron Luo, the brand’s CEO and co-founder. “From our communications with our factories, the situation in China has been contained for the last four weeks,” Luo explains, noting Caraa’s factories have implemented the recommended precautions. Luo says the brand has reassured customers that its production happens outside the Wuhan region (where the virus is believed to have originated), and that the products have a lengthy journey before arriving in customers’ homes, which should mitigate concerns about virus spread.
While online shopping overall has increased, sales have varied from company to company. Luxury activewear label Ultracor has seen an “increase in business since Friday (Mar. 13), which we attribute [to] people having more time online, and with the inability or lack of interest to shop at brick and mortar stores,” says a rep for the brand.
On the otherhand, contemporary brand L’Agence, known for its suiting and jeans, closed its brick-and-mortar locations Monday and is only shipping online orders, which have lagged. “We have seen a decrease in our e-commerce business this weekend and we feel that when the shock of the weekend news settles down, there will be a pick-up in sales,” explains L’Agence CEO and creative director Jeff Rudes.
Other businesses aren't worried about orders, but about order fulfillment. Though many haven’t yet had production or shipping times impacted, some are bracing for that to happen imminently: 44% of retailers expect production delays due to the coronavirus, and 40% expect inventory shortages in the near term, according to a survey by marketing firm Digital Commerce 360. “Our shipments to customers remain on-time without delays; our factory is located in Vietnam, but we are definitely looking hard at how our replenishment timeline may be impacted,” says Bree McKeen, founder & CEO of online lingerie brand Evelyn & Bobbie.
H&M and Zara are two European retailers at greatest risk from being impacted by the coronavirus due to their reliance on China for manufacturing and sales, according to a February UBS report. The lockdown of Italy's $107.9 billion fashion and textile industry has already caused many foreign buyers at brands to cancel orders. Plus, later in the year, shipping of goods in the crucial back-to-school and holiday seasons is predicted to be severely distressed due to the public health crisis and supply chain issues.
Patagonia voluntarily suspended its production, but will still continue to pay its employees — both those that are able to work remotely and those who can’t, like sales associates in its stores: On Friday, Mar. 13, the brand shared a memo on its site detailing its decision to cease operations entirely until at least Mar. 27, shuttering all stores and offices in the U.S., Argentina, Chile, Japan and across Europe, and online orders.
How are small businesses coping?
Small businesses (fashion or otherwise) will likely be hit fastest and possibly hardest by non-essential business closure, shelter-in-place orders, and curfew-like recommendations enacted in multiple cities and states already, from New Jersey to California. Jewelry designer Melissa Joy Manning is bracing for swift change due to California’s mandate that all non-essential businesses must close — and even more critically, the Mar. 16 shelter-in-place order in the Bay Area, where her production takes place. “My studio will go dark, with an estimated wait of 3 weeks for e-comm; I have no idea how that will go over,” Manning shares. “However, I hope that buyers will still support small businesses even if they have to wait for product [to ship]. Without that support, none of us will survive the prolonged closures.”
For now, perusing and purchasing digitally is the wisest, and temporarily, the only move, as Evelyn & Bobbie’s Bree McKeen puts it: “Social distancing is the real focus here, making online shopping the safer option.”
The Coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.