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Companies find a new purpose; workplace rules have changed

The outbreak of the coronavirus has dealt a shock to the global economy with unprecedented speed. Following are developments on Tuesday related to the global economy, the work place and the spread of the virus.

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INDUSTRY:

Less than a week after saying it planned to reopen five North American assembly plants, Ford has decided that those facilities will remain closed indefinitely. The announcement to reopen got a cool reception from the United Auto Workers union.

The spread of the virus has begun to hit Michigan hard. The TCF Center in downtown Detroit soon will be turned into a 900-bed field hospital for COVID-19 patients.

SAFETY IN THE WORKPLACE: The workplace environment, for those companies that must have workers on location, is changing.

Walmart will soon be taking temperatures of its workers as they arrive for their shifts. Any worker with a temperature of 100 degrees or more will be sent home, with pay. Walmart will also be issuing masks and gloves to those who want them.

In places shuttered by the outbreak, many workers will be returning to new rules and safety precautions.

Ford will require that workers “self-certify” online every day before work that they do not have any symptoms. The company will verify the self-certification before letting workers inside.

Facilities will be reconfigured so that workers remain six feet or more apart on the factory floor. There will be time between shifts for equipment to be sanitized and so that one shift of workers doesn’t cross paths with another. Some work stations will be shielded from others.

NEW PURPOSE: Luxury clothing companies, chemical producers, car makers and other companies continue to revamp production to meet pandemic supply demands.

Dow, which typically does not produce hand sanitizer, is doing so because the raw materials are readily available to the chemical maker. The majority of the sanitizer will be donated to health systems and government agencies.

The company began making sanitizer at its plant in Stade, Germany. Those operations are being expanded at facilities in Michigan, West Virginia, Belgium and Brazil. The Auburn site has the capacity to produce approximately 15,000 pounds of sanitizer a week, or nearly 30,000 eight-ounce bottles.

Ford is repurposing a parts factory west of Detroit to make simple ventilators starting the week of April 20.

Brooks Brothers is converting three U.S. factories to produce up to a total of 150,000 masks per day. It will also begin production on protective gowns. Japanese electronics maker Sharp Corp. converted its liquid crystal display factory and sent out its first shipment of medical masks Tuesday. The Japanese plant will make 150,000 masks a day, with production being ramped up later to 500,000 masks a day.

AIRLINES: South Australia state authorities have announced a cluster of six new coronavirus cases among Qantas Airways baggage handlers at Adelaide airport. State officials on Tuesday advised anyone who flew through the airport in the previous 24 hours to wipe down their luggage with disinfectant.

British Airways suspended all Gatwick Airport flights. Just 33 flights were due to take off or land at Gatwick on Tuesday, according to aviation data provider FlightStats. Beginning Wednesday, Gatwick's runway will only be open for scheduled flights between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. and will close one of its two terminals.

STAY PUT: Travel has almost come to a complete standstill. Airports are empty and Manhattan avenues typically choked with taxis are almost vacant.

The Transportation Security Administration screened 154,080 people Monday, the fewest yet and a drop of more than 93% from last year, when more than 2.3 million people passed through airport checkpoints.

Visa is reporting a rapid slide in travel-related spending by cardholders. It's also noticed a decline in spending on restaurants, entertainment and fuel, according to a regulatory filing. U.S. payments volume is down 4% for the month to date, with credit volume off 7%. Cross-border volume tumbled 19% for the period, on a constant dollar basis.

U.S. gasoline prices have dropped to their lowest levels in four years, and they are almost sure to fall further. Price-tracking services put the national average this week at around $2 a gallon. Some stations were charging under a dollar.

MARKETS: Wall Street was subdued Tuesday, a rarity. The surge of coronavirus cases around the world has sent markets to breathtaking drops since mid-February, and the quarter looks to be the worst performance since the 2008 financial crisis.

HOME-COOKED IS KING: British supermarkets just had their busiest month in recorded history.

New figures released Tuesday by market research firm Kantar show that British grocery sales jumped by 20.6% in March compared with a year earlier, making it the fastest rate of growth on record. Grocery sales totaled 10.8 billion pounds ($13.3 billion) over the past four weeks, surpassing the level seen during the busy Christmas season. The average household bought the equivalent of five extra days of groceries.

Conagra is reporting “significantly elevated demand," with shipments up approximately 50% in the current quarter.

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