Trump asks Walmart, Target, others to help tackle the coronavirus crisis

Two days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, President Donald Trump brought in leaders of some of the country’s biggest companies to showcase a plan to tackle the outbreak.

Trump spoke Friday flanked by the CEOs of Target, Walmart, Walgreens and others as he updated the country on the government’s response to the virus. As he handed the mike and podium over to them the message was clear: we’re in good hands. 

The market reacted well to the message, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing 1,985 points higher Friday. 

Trump lauded the CEOs as “celebrities in their own right” and praised their companies as the greatest in the world. The executives, like Walmart chief Doug McMillon, said they will help America ramp up its testing by offering space in their parking lots. 

The administration’s ability to quickly roll out tests has been marred by missteps and an underfunded system. In recent days, though, it has approved new tests, such as one from Swiss diagnostics-maker Roche, giving the government the capacity to make more.  

“Today I trust that people in America are looking on at this extraordinary public and private partnership to address the issue of testing with particular inspiration,” said White House Vice President Mike Pence.

“After you tapped me to lead the White House coronavirus task force, Mr. President,  you said, ‘this is all hands on deck’. You directed us to immediately reach out to the American business sector … to meet what we knew then would be the need [for] testing across the spectrum.”

“And today with this historic private-public partnership we have laid the foundation to meet that need.”

The Friday press conference topped two weeks of meetings with business leaders in banking, technology, pharmaceutical and other industries.  

Some have been described as “brainstorming sessions,” as was Trump’s meeting with technology leaders earlier this week. Others offered words of reassurance. Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat said during the banks’ meeting with the White House “this is not a financial crisis.

Announcements have followed suit. Trump also announced Friday that Google will launch a website to help people out to determine whether they should get a test for coronavirus. 

Still, many of the details around these private-public partnerships remain scarce, including those announced Friday.

Google’s communications team said the tool Trump referred to, which is being developed by Verily, the life sciences sister company to Google, remains in its early stages. Both Google and Verily are Alphabet companies.

“We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing,” it said in a statement. “Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time,” the statement said.

The retailers, meantime, had limited details to share around which locations will be rolling out tests, and how many of them they will have. 

For the retailers, the move is a natural expansion of efforts to utilize their vast footprint to provide medical care.  CVS Health bought insurer Aetna for roughly $69 billion two years ago, and has since expanded health-care services in its stores. 

Walmart has long been a pioneer in health care, including with its own employees. Ninety percent of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of a Walmart, giving it unique reach to Americans, particularly those in rural areas.  The retailer has explored other partnerships with the government, like an experiment in telehealth with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The retailer has also taken an increasing interest in dipping its toe into public policy. The retailer’s decision to dramatically step back from ammunition sales after “horrific” shootings let other major retailers to follow suit.

CEO Doug McMillon leads the Business Roundtable, a group representing the CEOs of nearly 200 companies. The Business Roundtable last year made a splash as it embraced stakeholder capitalism as its new purpose. With that statement, the companies said their focus is on serving not only its shareholders but all stakeholders, including customers and communities.

None of the companies disclosed what financial impact, if any, the moves would have on their financials.

“These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures,” said Richard Ashworth, Walgreens president.

“Collaboration with health officials, the government, and across our industry and other sectors is critical at this time. Walgreens has a long history of being there when our customers and communities needs us most.”

—CNBC’s Melissa Repko contributed to this story.

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