By Richa Naidu and Danielle Kaye

CHICAGO (Reuters) -Walmart temporarily shut almost 60 U.S. stores in COVID-19 hotspots in December to sanitize them against the virus, in a sign the new Omicron variant is disrupting the retail industry.

The Walmart stores – in locations including Texas and New Jersey – were closed for two days for cleaning “to present a safe and clean in-store environment for our associates and customers,” a company spokesperson told Reuters in a statement. Walmart has more than 4,700 U.S. locations in total.

The company made no comment on the potential impact of the closures.

It adopted a policy two years ago at the start of the coronavirus pandemic of closing stores for fewer than two days to “get ahead” of potential outbreaks.

“We’ve been closely monitoring our stores across the country, making the decision to temporarily close locations on a store-by-store basis through a collection of market-related data,” the Walmart spokesperson said, declining to confirm that there were staff COVID-19 cases at the closed locations.

The world’s biggest retailer also did not comment on whether it was seeing an increase in workers testing positive for COVID-19.

The United States has seen a spike in cases of the Omicron variant, leading retailers and restaurant chains to temporarily shutter stores and limit access to customers.

One Laurel, Maryland, Walmart facility was closed last week because that community was experiencing coronavirus cases, according to a memo shown to Reuters by two Walmart workers. They said several people at the store had contracted COVID-19, which Walmart declined to confirm. If COVID-related store closures disrupt Walmart’s operations into late January, they could begin to worry some investors, said John Augustine, chief investment officer at Huntington Private Bank, which invests in Walmart, Target and several other retailers. Walmart rival Target told Reuters it had not closed any Target stores for sanitization or other COVID-related reasons since the start of December. CVS said it had temporarily closed “fewer than 10 locations” for “enhanced cleaning” in that period.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that retailers “close off areas used by the person who is sick and do not use those areas until after cleaning and disinfecting”. The CDC does not strictly recommend shutting stores. Rising COVID-19 cases led Apple Inc to limit service at some New York-area stores, including its iconic Fifth Avenue flagship. The iPhone maker reduced operational hours from Monday to Thursday and limited the number of customers allowed into the store, according to its website. The site also showed that some Apple stores were temporarily closed in Georgia, Tennessee and California. It was not immediately clear why the stores were shut and Apple did not respond to a request for comment. Apple gets about 5% of its total sales from its retail locations, according to Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives. With 516 stores around the world, that amounts to about $35 million in sales per store, according to Reuters calculations. Some restaurant owners said their businesses have been affected, too. In mid-December, when COVID-19 cases began to skyrocket in New York City, pizzeria Bravo Pizza was forced to close for an entire day because six employees were out sick, Bravo’s owner said. Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, said “dozens” of the city’s restaurants had temporarily closed.

Dan Jacobs, co-owner of DanDan and two other Milwaukee restaurants, said his locations lost $80,000 of business between Christmas and New Year’s Day as staff caught COVID-19 or called out because they were afraid of getting sick.

(Reporting by Richa Naidu and Danielle Kaye; Additional reporting by Siddharth Cavale and Hilary Russ; Editing by Vanessa O’Connell, Anna Driver and Stephen Coates)