The Macy’s in Manhattan’s Herald Square opened its doors to customers at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, as planned.
Dozens of employees staffed the cash registers, cosmetics counter and shoe department. Many were frightened. Three days before, the company said that a worker at the store had tested positive for the coronavirus. But other workers were still being asked to commute to a job that required close interaction with the public.
“Why are your stores open?!” one person wrote on the Macy’s Facebook page. “Let those employees go home!”
By the end of the day, Macy’s announced that it was closing the Herald Square location and hundreds of stores nationwide through the end of the month. It said it would continue to compensate its workers. Many prominent retailers like Apple, Patagonia, Nike and Lululemon had also closed.
But other chains like TJX, the owner of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, Kohl’s and Starbucks remained open as of Wednesday morning, putting their employees — many of them relatively low-paid hourly workers — at potential risk. Gap stores were also open, although they planned to close on Thursday.
The retail industry has endured a recent raft of bankruptcies and closures, as well as the pressure of new tariffs in the past year. It makes the prospect of losing weeks of business to the coronavirus even more chilling for many stores.
But staying open has also caused anxiety for their employees.
Nevin Muni, who works part time at a T.J. Maxx in Queens, went to work on Tuesday in the stock room. She was given extra hours because a few other workers had called in sick, but the store was mostly empty. A spokeswoman for T.J. Maxx did not return requests for comment.
“Many people are scared,” Ms. Muni said. An employee who answered the phone early Wednesday afternoon said the store would be open until 8 p.m.
TJX and Kohl’s did not respond requests for comment.
“This crisis is really shining a light on inequality across our nation and economy,” said Liz Dunn, the founder of Pro4ma, a retail analytics company. Even as some people gripe about working from home, she said, “a lot of people can’t, and it’s likely they’re a lot more vulnerable in terms of what an economic downtown will do to their ability to feed their family and keep themselves housed.”
Some retailers said they were staying open because they viewed their businesses as important, even if not essential. Wheelworks, a bike store in the Boston area, said in an email to customers that it would keep its regular hours. “Getting outside and riding your bike is a great activity when you’re trying maintain physical distance,” the retailer said. “We are fully stocked with everything you would need for your outdoor adventures.”
The Retail Industry Leaders Association, an industry trade group, has been urging state and local officials to not unilaterally declare most of retail, outside of grocery stores and pharmacies, as nonessential. The group said officials should first consult with retailers before ordering stores to close.
“Ultimately, the retailers are in the best position to understand whether their store is deemed to be essential,” said the association’s president, Brian Dodge. “It is changing. What is true today might not be true tomorrow.”
Anyia Johnson, a barista at a Philadelphia-based Starbucks, said that she had skipped three scheduled shifts since last Thursday, when she went home early with aches, chills and a cough. She said she was especially concerned about coronavirus because she has a heart murmur, but that some of her colleagues continued to work with similar symptoms.
“The higher-ups — the C.E.O., the district managers, the board — they don’t understand what’s going on on the lower level,” Ms. Johnson said. “They’re not in the store with us, not interacting with customers on the front lines.”
A Starbucks spokeswoman said Tuesday that “we aren’t hearing concerns” from other workers in the store. Ms. Johnson said she was told Wednesday that she would be approved for two weeks of paid leave.
Ms. Johnson also began a petition through the website Coworker.org urging Starbucks to suspend business during the pandemic while continuing to pay employees. The petition has so far received more than 15,000 signatures.
On Sunday, store workers for Madewell, the denim brand owned by J.Crew, had two phone calls with senior leaders and were told that the stores would remain open, according to two people familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs. Store workers grew upset during the call when they were told that paid time off would not be approved for the next two weeks, the people said.
Store employees understood the corporate staff of J.Crew and Madewell to be working from home by the end of last week, increasing the tension. The situation boiled over on Instagram, where employees and customers berated Madewell. “Selling jeans is not worth putting lives at risk,” one user wrote.
J.Crew and Madewell announced on Monday that they would be closed through March 27. J. Crew and Madewell declined to comment.
On an internal message board for Gap employees, the mounting anxiety of store staff was apparent this week. Many expressed concern about accepting cash and whether fitting rooms were safe and pleaded with Gap, which also owns Banana Republic and Old Navy, to shut stores.
Exacerbating the situation was the fact that some executives making the decisions to have employees to continue showing up at stores were doing so from their own homes. Gap’s headquarters are in San Francisco, which was subject to a shelter-at-home order this week.
“I’m scared to go to work, but if I don’t go I won’t get paid, and I have a one-year-old at home,” one employee wrote on Tuesday. “Please please please close all stores.”
Another wrote: “I have worked for this company for 18 years and have never felt less valued as a human being. I have to explain to my sales associates every single day why we are still open and honestly I have no more answers.”
Gap said early Wednesday that its stores would close on Thursday and reopen on April 2.
“Our focus is on the health and livelihood of our employees, customers and communities,” a Gap spokeswoman wrote in an email, “and it was important to weigh all the potential impacts when making this decision.”
Noam Scheiber contributed reporting.