Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) was hit hard at the onset of the pandemic as it had to close most of its stores to in-restaurant dining to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Slowly, it has been recovering lost ground as economies are going through stages of reopening. 

The company will report third-quarter earnings on Tuesday, July 27, and investors expect a continuation of that reopening momentum. But emerging trends -- mainly the surge in coronavirus infections caused by the delta variant -- could derail the recovery.

A man and woman sharing coffee.

Image source: Getty Images.

The delta variant risks slowing down reopening momentum   

Starbucks has 20,261 locations in the U.S. and China, which represent 62% of its locations worldwide. The two countries are also furthest along in vaccinating their populations. As of this writing, China has administered over 1.54 billion doses, and the U.S. has administered 342 million -- enough to fully vaccinate 55% and 53.4% of their populations, respectively.

The higher vaccination rates are allowing for faster reopening of economies in the two markets. In its most recent quarter, Starbucks reported U.S. sales eclipsed levels from before the pandemic. Meanwhile, sales in China were 90% recovered. Therefore, a resurgence in COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant is less likely to cause economic lockdowns in those two countries.

Even if a renewal of lockdowns is far less likely, the resurgence in cases could slow down reopening. Millions of students are expected to return to campus in the fall semester. And businesses are preparing to bring back employees to offices at least part-time in the second half of the year. The increase in infections could delay both. 

What this could mean for investors 

Analysts on Wall Street expect Starbucks to report revenue of $7.24 billion and earnings per share of $0.77 in its third quarter. If it meets those expectations, it would lift year-to-date revenue to $20.64 billion after the company reported revenue of $6.7 billion each in the first and second quarter.

Interestingly, management has informed investors to expect overall revenue in the range of $28.5 billion to $29.3 billion for fiscal 2021. And considering that historically, Starbucks generates more revenue in the final quarter of the year compared to the first three, it would be on pace for reaching the yearly target.

Still, management might provide an update on the fourth quarter. The delta variant is at least slowing the pace of economic reopenings. For instance, several major corporations have delayed a return to offices, and some countries have extended or instituted travel restrictions. Those developments could have hampered Starbucks' expectations for the fourth quarter. 

The stock price is up 16.9% in 2021 and 11.5% in the last month alone. It does not appear that investors are pricing in any possibility of negative news coming out of Starbucks' earnings report. That raises the potential for a sharper sell-off if there is one. Investors looking to start a position in the company are better served waiting until after the earnings release to buy. That way, it will remove some of the downside risks of bad news coming out of the earnings report.  

 
This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.