by JUSTIN COOPER
In the early days of Michigan’s COVID-19 outbreak, with 12 cases statewide and less than a week before its first death related to the pandemic, an employee of Troy tech resale shop Disc Replay covered a co-worker’s shift.
He wore gloves throughout the day, as the job requires handling second-hand video game consoles, discs, and tech accessories. A customer made fun of him for over-protecting himself against the pandemic that had yet to alter daily life for most in Michigan.
“You know, the flu is more dangerous,” the naysayer said, echoing what had for weeks been a common sentiment. He bragged about the cheap flight he’d booked for the next weekend.
Just over a week later, with Michigan nearing 300 cases, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order, and Disc Replay closed its doors “for at least three weeks.”
The 13 days Disc Replay spent between Michigan’s first COVID-19 cases and Michigan’s first stay-at-home order are a window into the challenges a small business faced as they grappled with a situation that grew more urgent and less predictable with each passing day.
All employees interviewed for this story were granted anonymity.
Nick Leja, who owns Disc Replay’s Troy location and several others in the region, sent out the company’s first guidance on COVID-19 on Friday, March 13.
Speaking through Troy manager Blake Smith in an email, Leja listed basic preventative measures like social distancing and washing your hands for 20 seconds, and told employees to stay home if they develop a dry cough.
At opening, closing and shift changes, all surfaces touched by hands were to be disinfected. Touching customers’ trade-in items should be fine, he said, as long as employees wash their hands before touching their faces or eating.
At least one employee replied to Smith with concerns to pass up the chain. He cautioned against trade-ins altogether and cited concerns about the company’s policy around calling in sick.
According to a former employee, Disc Replay workers must arrange for their shift to be covered, or else it is as good as a no-call-no-show.
Smith reassured employees that no one’s job is in jeopardy and said he would forward his email up the chain of command.
Around this time, Disc Replay’s business spiked. On Sunday, March 15, sales at the store were over double what was forecasted.
By then, Oakland County had confirmed 16 cases of COVID-19.
“There were days close to, if not Black Friday itself, that we didn’t do that much,” a former middle manager told the Gazette.
Whatever the cause – employees suggested people were either stocking up on entertainment or were forced into Disc Replay because competitors had closed – the sales floor was flush with people just as the pandemic was setting in.
Michigan reported its first death related to COVID-19 three days later in Wayne County.
“It’s wrong morally,” an employee told the Gazette that day. “Businesses small and large are closing across the street and country due to the virus. Similar businesses do what they should, and yet Replay stays open to maximize profit.”
By the end of the week, an employee had taken his workers’ safety into his own hands. With the approval of the workers on his shift, he implemented a 10-person capacity and suspended all trade-ins, measures that upper management had not approved up to that point.
GameStop, a competitor that had stayed open nationwide, closed its stores that day after having its business license revoked in Pennsylvania. Oakland County reported its 277th COVID-19 case and its second death.
An employee said he believes management took the pandemic seriously, but lacked on-the-ground perspective. The staff’s supply of Clorox wipes was dwindling by Saturday, March 21, and they had run out of gloves.
Leja said he and the district manager stocked up on cleaning supplies with “no dollar limitation” that were to be brought in the next day, and now have a surplus of protection equipment for when the store reopens.
On an emergency staff call that night that included Leja, no employees agreed to continue working. Four people volunteered to service curbside pick-up, but one soon backed out.
Leja also told them he would not immediately follow an order that day from Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter to close all malls, according to two employees who were on the call.
Disc Replay is housed in a strip mall, and the order called for the closure of “business establishments housed in a series of connected or adjacent buildings or in a single large building.”
“We decided at the staff meeting that I would look into this further and potentially reach out to Oakland County to get clarification,” Leja said. “I’m not saying the order did not apply to us, just that I wanted to look into it.”
The store did not open the following day, the last before Whitmer issued a state-wide stay-at-home order on Monday, March 23, which ordered all “non-essential” businesses to close and eliminated the perceived gray area.
“Ever since this began, our store policy has been that the employees can decide if we remain open and what days/hours we’re open (if any),” Leja said. “During times like these, I don’t think it’s right for any retail store owner to decide for their staff whether or not the store will be open.”
An employee said that while staff was never “explicitly” told to continue working, the employee handbook doesn’t say “anything like this.” Likewise, the former middle manager said Leja’s comment was the first time he had heard of any such policy.
It’s unclear where exactly the communication breakdown took place, but while employees griped in private chats, implemented personal policies to protect themselves and funneled grievances up the chain of command, Disc Replay’s staff was frozen in place.
“[Smith] wanted the store closed. He had talks with [ownership]. We remain open,” an employee said the day before Whitmer’s order. Smith did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In a voluntary virtual meeting the week of March 29, staff discussed how to make Disc Replay “a safe workplace” when Whitmer’s stay-at-home order is lifted, Leja said. Ideas included plexiglass barriers around areas with the most customer interaction and a cash bucket on a 5- to 6-foot stick.