In April, US retail sales plunged 17.8% compared to last year, according to an advance estimate from the census bureau (pdf) released May 15. The numbers were even worse than expected. “We have never seen economic data like this before in history,” Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank, told CNBC.

The drop is a result of large numbers of stores closing as part of state social-distancing rules and consumers slashing their discretionary spending. A large share of it should return as states reopen, though how quickly remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, retailers are finding themselves unable to pay their rent and other expenses, such as loan payments. The situation is forcing many companies into bankruptcy and prompting permanent store closures around the country, leaving many retail workers among the 36.5 million Americans who have filed unemployment claims in the past two months.

The US government has offered companies assistance such as funds to help pay employees, but many retailers, perhaps small businesses especially, could need additional help to survive. Stephens suggests the US government take measures such as underwriting leases to sustain these companies and the jobs they provide.

Even with these efforts, retail stands to suffer long-term effects from the pandemic. One analyst at Wells Fargo predicted 5% to 10% of retail demand could be lost permanently as e-commerce is unable to make up for all the vanished store sales.

David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently predicted the sector’s contraction will be “vastly accelerated” by the fallout from Covid-19, and as demand falls for the sort of in-person services most affected in the outbreak, the low-wage workers doing these jobs will see their wages decline. Groups such as black and Latino Americans could be hit hardest.

The share of Americans employed in retail was already falling before the pandemic, spurred at least in part by the rise of e-commerce (Quartz member exclusive). Covid-19 is hastening the process, whether the US economy is ready or not.

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