Lauren and Mike Derse, owners of two Learning Express franchises, stand on their front porch in Harvard, Mass., on Friday. (Nathan Klima for The Washington Post)

Mike Derse kept his two toy stores open as long as he could, but sometime in mid-March he realized he had no choice but to lay off his entire staff.

“We just didn’t have the cash to keep our employees on the payroll,” said Derse, who closed the two Learning Express franchises he owns with his wife three weeks ago. “ ‘Look, we’re sorry,’ ” he told the 30 workers. “ ‘We’ve had to make drastic changes.’ ”

Like countless other small-business owners living in suspended animation until the coronavirus crisis wears itself out, Derse is hoping to tap a massive federal stimulus program and take out a loan to get his workers back on the payroll as soon as his stores in Bedford, Mass., and Burlington, Mass., are allowed to reopen. But specifics have been murky, he says, and it’s been difficult to get a clear sense of how, or when, to apply for the pool of $349 billion in stimulus money that became available to small-business owners Friday. Major banks like JPMorgan Chase have already warned that they won’t be able to accept or process applications right away.

So far, the only certainty about the outbreak is its ferocity, complicating Derse’s ability to anticipate, much less plan, his next step.

“Most small-business owners are living day-to-day,” he said. “If we have to stay closed for months, will we make it? I honestly don’t know.”

The retail industry, in turmoil long before the pandemic took hold, is facing new and unprecedented challenges. More than 60,000 stores have closed in recent weeks, according to Coresight Research, and entire shopping malls now sit empty as social distancing — which public health officials have called the best defense against the pandemic’s spread — keeps consumers home. Retailers are canceling millions of dollars’ worth of orders as sales have gone off the cliff.

This week alone, nearly 1 million retail workers were furloughed as major brands like Macy’s, Gap, Kohl’s, L Brands and J.C. Penney told most of their employees they needed to stay home, without pay, indefinitely. By comparison, retailers shed 2.6 million jobs in 2008 at the height of the Great Recession.

Analysts suspect the trend line will only worsen: Many of these temporary store closures are sure to become permanent as coronavirus-related shutdowns stretch into the spring and summer. A number of major retailers already are operating under heavy debt loads, making it nearly impossible for them to stay afloat without sales coming in.

“The effects of a universal shutdown are likely to be profound and lasting,” said Deborah Weinswig, chief executive of Coresight Research. “We anticipate that some of the retailers that recently announced temporary store closures, including well-known names, will never reopen their doors.”

The growing crisis, analysts said, will permanently alter an already-battered industry that has struggled to adapt to changing consumer habits as more people buy online and eschew department stores in favor of direct-to-consumer brands. Retailers announced a record 9,300 store closures last year, as such companies as Forever 21, Barneys New York and Gymboree filed for bankruptcy. Many others were hard-hit by the Trump administration’s tariffs on Chinese imports, which have already cost retailers 300,000 jobs, according to Moody’s Analytics.

The coronavirus shutdowns, Weinswig said, “are throwing even more salt on those wounds.”

Weinswig projects that at least 15,000 stores will close by the end of the year. Consumer confidence — which until this year had been buoyed by low unemployment rates and a booming stock market — has taken a massive hit in recent weeks, with millions reporting layoffs and pay cuts. Even once the country’s retailers open back up, analysts say it will be a long time before Americans are able, or willing, to spend freely.

The outbreak has given rise to a deep economic downturn with echoes of the Great Depression, paralyzing entire industries and sparking widespread layoffs — from travel to professional services to manufacturing — as cities and states take unprecedented measures to battle the fast-spreading disease that as of Friday morning has infected more than 245,000 Americans. And the health and economic toll will grow: The White House projects upward of 240,000 people will die of the virus, and economists expect that 40 million Americans will be out of work by mid-April.

“This pandemic is going to stay in people’s minds even once it’s over,” said Sharon DiMinico, chief executive of Learning Express, which has 100 toy store franchises across the country. “The economy has basically shut down. People are losing their jobs. Who knows how long it’s going to take to recover from that?”

The company’s stores have canceled countless orders in recent weeks and laid off more than 1,500 workers, she said. Some outlets have begun offering curbside pickup or delivery services, though sales have been spotty. Some vendors have shut down, DiMinico said, and several others have warned that their supply chains were disrupted during coronavirus-related shutdowns in China.

“The longer this goes on,” she said, “the more likely it is that some of these stores will close for good.”

Some retailers have already taken drastic steps. Rogelio Rodriguez found out a couple of weeks ago that the Goodwill Store where he worked would be closing — just temporarily, managers told him — as New York began hunkering down for the outbreak. This week, he was told the Manhattan site would be closing permanently.

“We knew it wouldn’t be opening again any time soon — used clothes are not essential — but I still wasn’t expecting this to happen so suddenly,” said Rodriguez, 56. “I’m a working-class dude, and now I’m out of a job.”

Large retailers across the country announced a rapid succession of furloughs this week as store closures remained in place for the foreseeable future. Macy’s is furloughing the majority of its 125,000 workers, while Gap and Kohl’s are each furloughing about 80,000 employees. A number of other retailers have announced significant cuts, including J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, L Brands and Urban Outfitters. A number of others, including Everlane, Sephora and Rent the Runway, have laid off large swaths of their workforce. Overall, 16 million Americans worked in the retail industry last year, according to the Labor Department.

A snapshot of recent retail furloughs
Macy’s: the majority of its 125,000 employees
Ross Stores: most of its 92,500 employees
J.C. Penney: most of its 90,000 employees
Kohl’s: 85,000 employees
Gap: 80,000 employees
Ascena Retail (Ann Taylor, Lane Bryant): 39,000 employees
Belk: most of its 22,000 employees
Tailored Brands (Men’s Warehouse, Jos. A Bank): 19,000 employees
Neiman Marcus: most of its 14,000 employees
Guitar Center: 9,000 employees

Nearly 10 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits over the past two weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic gutted entire industries, including retail, restaurants, travel and hospitality.

The Goodwill store in Manhattan, Rodriguez said, isn’t renewing its lease. Analysts say other retailers are likely to follow suit in coming months, ushering in a new wave of trouble for shopping centers and malls.

Goodwill did not respond to a request for comment.

The nation’s 1,100 shopping malls, which have been struggling with years of declining traffic and slipping sales, are likely to be the hardest hit, DiMinico said. According to reports, Simon Property Group, the largest mall operator in the United States, furloughed 30 percent of its workforce this week — or about 1,500 employees — in a sign that it expects properties to remain closed for the foreseeable future.

Also at risk: department store chains like Kohl’s, Sears and JC Penney, which have huge stores with loads of seasonal inventory that will be out of season by the time they reopen. In January, U.S. retailers had about 16 million employees, with 1.8 million of them working in department stores, according to the Labor Department.

“Currently, revenue for these companies is down 80 to 100 percent, depending on how much business their websites are doing,” said David Silverman, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. “Even once things open up, we don’t see a significant rebound right away. It’s likely to be a slow improvement over many months.”

Fitch Ratings this week downgraded nearly a dozen retailers in quick succession, including Levi Strauss, Dillard’s, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, Macy’s and J.C. Penney. The economic fallout of millions of job losses and massive cuts to tourism is likely to roil retailers long term, Silverman said: He estimated that holiday sales could decline up to 30 percent from last year, which was already a tough season for many.


Bicyclists pass by a closed Macy's department store in Santa Ana, Calif., on March 30. (Chris Carlson/AP)

Macy’s, the nation’s largest department store chain, was dropped from the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index this week, after its market capitalization fell to $1.5 billion — a 75 percent plunge in two months. The retail giant said this week that it has lost the “majority” of its sales since shuttering its 775 Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Bluemercury stores weeks ago. Analysts say more retailers are likely to follow.

The timing of the pandemic couldn’t have been worse for the American Dream, a $5 billion megamall in East Rutherford, N.J., that was scheduled to open in March after 15 years of stops and starts. It began rolling out its over-the-top attractions — an indoor theme park, National Hockey League-size ice rink, indoor water park and the country’s first indoor ski resort — late last year. More than 300 retailers, including H&M and Hermes, had been scheduled to start opening stores on March 19.

But days before, developer Triple Five Group said it would be postponing the opening indefinitely. Even after the property reopens, analysts said, it’ll be a tough sell: It will be a long time, they say, before Americans will want to congregate in crowded spaces, and it could take years for tourism to rebound.

For now, the mall is staying dark. “We strongly encourage you and your family to stay home,” the mall’s website says.

Shannon Burns has been spending a lot more time snuggling with her cats at home since the Macy’s where she works closed three weeks ago. On Monday, she found out she had been furloughed through the end of May.

“I’m just sitting on my hands not sure what to do next,” said Burns, 45, who lives in Southampton, Pa. She filed for unemployment benefits and is hopeful her store will reopen in a few months. Until then, though, “it’s like being stuck in some sort of horror movie,” she said. “I’m going stir-crazy.”

An hour away, Dani White was also furloughed from her job in the security department of a Boscov’s department store in Pennsylvania. Her manager, she says, has assured her that her job will be waiting when the mall opens back up. Boscov’s did not respond to a request for comment.

“But I’m worried about how long that will take,” said White, 20. “We haven’t heard anything yet. The only thing they’ve told us so far is: Stay home.”

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