As we approach the end of 2020, a meaningful slowdown of COVID-19 seems unlikely. New cases are trending upwards and it appears that the curve may even worsen as we advance into the winter months. Such trajectories are predicted by the virus’s current R0, or R-naught, value.
It’s important to understand that R0 is not a fixed number. Rather, it’s a “floating” term used to describe how infectious a disease is at a given point in time, due to factors like social contact and environmental conditions that make spreading more likely. And it’s most relevant when everyone in a population is vulnerable to the disease - i.e. when no one has been vaccinated, no one has antibodies (because they’ve already had the disease), and there’s no way to control its spread. An R0 value of 1 means that, on average, an infected person will pass a disease along to one other person. An R0 of 1.25 suggests that one person will infect more than one person, and so on.
In practical terms, this means that if one individual infected with a disease like COVID-19 - which has an R0 value of X as of this writing - does not practice any social distancing measures, they will have infected over 400 people at the end of a 30 day period. If that one infected person reduces their social interactions by just 50%, they would infect only about 15 other people in the same 30 day period. In March 2020, we saw COVID’s R0 drop below 1 after just a few weeks of social distancing. By the end of June though, when many states began to relax their distancing guidelines, that number rose back up, eventually settling between 1 and 1.5.
The world saw the most effective - and strictest - measures taken in New Zealand, an island country with a population of 4.8 million people. From March through April, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s hard restrictions came as the “elimination phase” of lockdown, enabling the country to report no new cases of COVID-19 within the first week of May. This directly led to R0 dropping to 0.4, an infection rate of less than half a person. Though New Zealand saw a newfound emergence of cases in August, the cluster contained only about 30 people. As a country, they positively managed COVID-19 effectively by reducing social exposure, which allowed the R0 to fall.
People should continue to wear a mask or face covering while social distancing, as county and state guidance often remains ambiguous on defining what this means. Digital signage and virtual queuing allow businesses to continue to safely serve their communities by reducing the number of people that come into contact with one another. Digital signage gives these businesses opportunities to clearly communicate with their patrons, while mobile queuing systems like FireCast SmartFlow offer a number of tools to help reduce confusion and give organizations the control they need to effectively manage daily traffic flow.
A digital queue system alleviates many social distancing problems by helping venues manage the number of people who are permitted into a space at any given time, whether they are booking an appointment in advance or simply scanning a QR barcode or sending a text to get in line upon arrival. This reduces the need for public-facing touchscreen devices and other physical touchpoints.
The inevitable ebb and flow of infection rates for COVID-19 will continue well into 2021, and perhaps into 2022. It is likely we will see the R0 value fall below 1 again and rise above 1.25. With companies like WireSpring helping businesses navigate the nuances of social distancing, smart uses of technologies like virtual queues, curbside order fulfilment, temperature scanning kiosks and contact tracing apps will hopefully contribute to a reduction in R0.
Gearing up for the holiday shopping season, big box stores like Walmart and Target have increased their tech presences to help cope with the ongoing effects of the pandemic. While smaller stores and businesses might lack the online presence and queuing systems to readily adapt to a virtual shopping experience, big retailers who have been well equipped with smart and contactless technologies for years are seeing more customers utilize their self-service offerings. While many stores seem less packed, customers have been flocking to online ordering and pick-up services to avoid line-ups, keeping staff busy and visits socially-distanced. Some of the most sophisticated offerings even let people order online and have store staff deliver the items directly to their cars parked at special ‘Drive-Up Spots’.
Nearly all of these technological advancements are made possible by dramatic improvements in Internet of Things (IoT) systems that have matured over the last decade. The IoT tech sector is expected to be worth over $94 billion by 2025 as retail stores and others see the demand for improving the delivery of products and services. Some key IoT technologies that are driving growth include cashier-less payment systems, wireless shipment tracking devices, inventory management tools and even in-store buyer behavior tracking. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon has fully embraced IoT devices within Walmart stating, “The internet of things, drones, delivery robots, 3D-printing and self-driving cars will allow retailers to further automate and optimize supply chains too. Both sides of the equation – demand and supply – will change dramatically.” And numerous experts have chimed in to give their predictions of what retail shopping will look like in the not-too-distant future.
Target, who has also fully embraced an IoT retail future, has seen record profits and high stock values in 2020 as the demand for consumer goods has outpaced economic concerns for many. The double edged sword for small retailers who didn’t embrace e-commerce or contactless technologies has forced them to close their doors during the pandemic creating a win-win scenario for large warehouse businesses as consumers were left with fewer retailers to choose from. Large retailers have also made many efforts to keep their customers safe and coming through their doors by sanitizing carts and baskets between use, making masks available and required, monitoring social distancing rules and implementing dedicated shopping hours for vulnerable guests. Big box stores have also increased their labor forces, creating new warehouse, customer service and delivery driver positions to address changing shopper habits.
New retail based technologies are still arriving to create an even better online shopping experience. Fit:Match, a company that has created a virtual fitting room based on a database of clothing measurements from different fashion designers and clothing companies have rolled out an e-commerce platform that uses a 3D model of the shopper (attained by visiting a Fit:Match measuring location) and finds the best fitting clothing based on AI matching. Other technologies waiting in the wings, like ‘smart carts’, will allow an in-person shopper to pay for their items directly on the shopping cart to avoid the checkout lane entirely.
I think we can expect to see even more changes in 2021 and beyond, as shopper culture continues to adapt to the new normal of the post-pandemic world. It will be most interesting to see how big retailers continue to push the envelope. Unlike smaller shops, these large stores might be able to do as well -- or better -- with shoppers who use mobile applications and other tools that give customers better control over their shopping experience rather than spending their time pushing carts down the aisles. While in-store visits still drive the bulk of store profits for even the largest retailers, in the future, the power and convenience afforded by new tech tools could well change that.
As we pass the six month anniversary of when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO, many businesses and local attractions continue to see reduced foot traffic and revenue. While people are slowly making their way back out, safety is still a concern. Though we might not see a vaccine during 2020, there are many new products and services on the market that businesses can potentially leverage to improve safety in their out-of-home environments. Here are just a few new ways that tech is helping us get back to work, school, and play.
The shift to work-from-home (WFH) has been one of the key trends during this time period. While larger firms like Google and Workday are extending their WFH policies until mid-2021, many companies have jumped into the contact tracing market to gauge safety at work, especially for the public sector. One early leader in this field is Work.com by Salesforce, which acts as a command center for business leaders to manage office safety. PWC, IBM, and ServiceNow have also launched their own tools for managing the return to the workplace. By using products like these, business leaders can be proactive in understanding their team dynamics and take precautions to minimize the likelihood that COVID-19 will spread in their workplaces.
It’s not only offices that need this extra level of protection, but also the general public. With a majority of the population owning smartphones, Google and Apple have built a large-scale exposure notification system to help curb the spread of the disease. Right now, only a handful of US states and territories have adopted technology that notifies people when they have come in contact with someone who has self-reported COVID-19 symptoms, with the notification algorithms based on phone location data and such. Though tracing systems are not a new concept, it is impressive that digital versions became available only a few months after the outbreak.
Since local attractions like museums and parks can't go fully remote like offices can, many venues have added some type reservation or queuing system to manage guest flow. In some cases, adding digital tools has also elevated the customer experience. For instance, the Cleveland Museum of Art has invested in online-guided tours and timed digital tickets that allow people to enjoy the museum’s collections in safe numbers.
Public and private organizations alike are also exploring the use of virtual queuing systems like FireCast SmartFlow, which make it possible for consumers to book a time in advance or reserve their place in line without the need to line up in potentially crowded areas.
As the scientific community learns more about COVID-19, it’s apparent that the virus can spread quickly and survive on surfaces for at least some period of time. This is one reason why some hotels and attractions have started to upgrade their HVAC systems to include UV-C filtration, which is said to kill 90% of bacteria and viruses. In addition to making this change, the Seattle Space Needle invested almost $1 million in mechanisms for regularly disinfecting and sanitizing their high-traffic areas. Many large hotel chains are exploring HEPA/UV-C filtration systems in order to make customers feel safer and rebuild trust in the hospitality industry.
Despite the stress of the pandemic, it's great to see companies and organizations working quickly to develop and deploy new technologies and protocols. Some of these endeavors may be more costly than others, but the sum total of these efforts should be a safer, more efficient, and ultimately more enjoyable experience for employees and consumers alike.
The need and opportunity for optimizing in-person queuing has become evident during the last six months. Less than a year ago, customers were able to pile into grocery stores, theaters, banks and clubs without any concern -- aside from maybe reaching the fire code occupancy limit. But today, things are different. Essential businesses must keep their doors open, their stores safe and their customers happy, but concerns about public safety and adherence to social distancing rules has led to many businesses losing their charm and their utility as places for social gathering.
As people wait for the virus to wane and restrictions to be lifted so they can carry on with their normal lives, software companies, hardware companies and signage companies have been trying to mitigate the negative effects of social distancing and lockdowns. 'Wear Your Mask' signs on supermarket entrances, floor markers set 6-feet apart, door greeters and many more low-tech solutions are being used to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but often at the cost of creating a less-than-satisfactory customer experience.
Meanwhile, technology companies have responded to the crisis by creating and optimizing products to reduce physical foot traffic to businesses (for example, by using e-commerce delivery and video conferencing) and help ensure that in-person employees and visitors remain safe and comfortable. Many customer service-based businesses have implemented appointment booking solutions that help manage the flow of on-site foot traffic, while some retailers, grocery stores and gas stations have been using closed circuit video at the entrances to enforce occupancy limits.
Essential institutions such as schools and hospitals have been more strict, often requiring some kind of testing before entry. Many schools and businesses across the world have started using temperature-taking kiosks at entry points, or manning the doors with employees who use IR thermometers to quickly test anyone wanting to enter.
In a hybrid high-tech/low-tech approach, several bank groups have stationed a greeter at the entrance to help customers make an appointment. After filling out a survey with the greeter, the client is placed in a digital queue that sends text messages as their turn approaches. Other appointment-based businesses are using online appointment scheduling tools that give the user a link to click or QR code to be scanned on arrival to reduce physical queuing in crowded areas. IBM’s Digital Health Pass
, unveiled in early October, is another complementary tool created to give people more confidence in public areas The Digital Health Pass works by creating a QR code based on the user’s vaccination record or COVID-19 test results, allowing for a quick scan to then facilitate entry.
Other large technology companies such as Alphabet, Microsoft and CVS Health have been working on 're-opening' applications that focus on predicting and containing the virus using many different testing and tracing technologies. Smaller tech companies who specialize in queueing technology and digital signage, like WireSpring, are rapidly iterating on greeter-free virtual queuing options that let patrons pre-book appointments themselves, or scan a QR code on arrival to be placed into a digital queue.
With lockdowns expected to continue into 2021, businesses and their customers will likely continue to lean heavily on new technology to reduce the stress of dealing with social distancing and other restrictions until the threat of the COVID-19 virus eventually declines.