Americans are suffering from "cabin fever." That's how both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Trump described the American psyche this past weekend, with much of the country growing weary of spending so much time at home. President Trump went even further when he sent out Tweets encouraging citizens of three states to push for more immediate reopenings than planned.
Governors of those states, Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia, were left confused, having been told just days earlier by the President that the decision to reopen would be left up to them, though just days prior they were told the opposite by the President, who claimed the decision to reopen the country rested solely with him.
Governors are understandably feeling a bit whipsawed by this flip-flopping. Still, it's fair to say that there isn't a governor across the country who isn't eager to ease restrictions that have crippled state economies. The vast majority of Governors, however, are balancing their decisions to reopen with local public health concerns and the White House's very own Guidelines for Opening Up America.
Reopening Means Renewed Opportunities for The Virus to Spread
American workers are also anxious to get back to work, and business owners are desperate to see the wheels of commerce turn again. But the fact of the matter is this - businesses are going to reopen before there is widespread testing for COVID-19, much less general availability of antibody testing, which will indicate if an employee was previously infected and has now mounted an immune response to the disease.
This is to say nothing of the 12-to-18 month roadmap to developing an actual vaccine for the virus, nor the manpower required to do meaningful contact tracking. This means that the coronavirus will have renewed opportunities to spread as workers return to the job.
Without Formal Guidance, Businesses Are Essentially Winging It
Without common and well-defined safety procedures for reopening, businesses are implementing ad hoc procedures with vastly mixed results and constant changes. OSHA is stressing that its guidance isn't regulation, but rather advisory.
Many frustrated business leaders are looking to "essential businesses" that never shut down for guidance, while others are looking for inspiration from companies in overseas markets where the curve of the pandemic subsided weeks ago.
So what should employers do to prepare for reopening? What actions can they take to make workplaces safe? What steps can they take to test workers and keep them healthy?
Here are some suggestions;
DETERMINE WHEN TO REOPEN - THEN SHARE YOUR PLANS
Businesses deemed nonessential can only reopen once the state(s) in which they do business reopen, and even then, the decision may be more local. While the Governor of Florida has reopened the beaches in Jacksonville, the Mayor of Miami has not reopened South Beach.
The fact of the matter is this – we live in a large and diverse country. Even within states, there is considerable diversity between rural and urban areas. If we've learned nothing else these past several weeks - states, counties, and cities all possess individual powers to govern the "health, welfare and safety" of citizens, with emergency powers that extend to private businesses and personal freedoms.
In some states, such as Washington and New York, the outbreak has peaked, while in others, such as New Mexico and Wyoming, experts aren't projecting a peak until as late at May 5th. But with Georgia reopening some businesses this Friday, and Tennessee scheduled to reopen some businesses next week, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey understandably faces a difficult decision on whether or not to lift his "Stay home, Stay healthy, Stay connected" policy. This policy took effect on March 31st and, at present, is scheduled to sunset April 30th.
Despite more protests at the state capital yesterday, Gov. Ducey has thus far said that he is not willing to put a timetable on reopening and that he's taking a methodical approach, with the help of doctors and scientists. Most think he will extend this stay at home order through May 15th. (Here is a handy link to where all 50 states stand on reopening.)
Regardless of his decision, the day will eventually arrive when stay-at-home orders are lifted, and nonessential businesses are allowed to resume operations. Employers should start thinking now about what that means for them. Do they plan to reopen the very same day orders are lifted, or will it take time to ramp-up and build up supplies and inventory?
Employers should share their reopening plans with their employees as soon as they are formulated. Many will need time to put things in order, such as arranging for childcare given that most daycare centers will probably remain closed for some time.
Above all else, workers will be immensely curious about their employers' plans to keep them safe. Getting out in front of that with some communications before they return will go a long way to assuage any fears and anxiety they have about returning to work.
CRAFT A FORMAL PLAN TO KEEP WORKERS HEALTHY
Businesses should reevaluate every aspect of their operations and enact changes, wherever possible, to help minimize the risk of spreading the virus to coworkers, customers, and vendors.
Here are some ideas to consider;
Avoid Commuting - While Phoenix, Tucson, and other cities around the country have stepped up cleaning protocols, workers should limit their use of mass transit when possible. Businesses can encourage carpooling or deploy corporate vans or other forms of transport, where hygiene and social distancing are easier to control.
Encourage Telework - Companies should continue to encourage teleworking, wherever possible. While a recent study found that only 37% of jobs can be accomplished from home, companies who have this luxury should continue practicing it, for now.
Reduce Density – While this may be easier to accomplish in offices than on shop floors, employers should consider dividing workers into groups and alternating who works from home and who comes into the office. Companies can also deploy staggered schedules, which limit the hours the office is at capacity. Staggered schedules also help commuters to avoid rush hours on crowded rail and buses. Employers might also want to consider redesigning open office plans and placing people in vacant offices, at least temporarily. Manufacturers might want to consider installing dividers or partitions between workers, where possible.
Practice Food Safety - Companies should encourage workers to avoid the break room by bringing-in pre-prepared meals that don't require refrigeration nor the use of other appliances such as microwaves and toaster ovens. Employers should also encourage employees to use disposable containers. Employers that operate cafeterias shouldn't shut them down, but rather add additional safety measures: more supervision of the health of food handlers, for example. Afterall, businesses ought to continue to run safe food services instead of letting employees wander to the corner deli, where precautions may be uncertain and spaces more crowded.
Disinfect Regularly – Employers need to put their employees' minds at ease about working in a clean environment. Have your cleaning staff do an extra thorough job every night and ensure that they are using cleaning supplies proven to disinfect for the COVID-19. Have hand sanitizer accessible throughout the office, most notably near doors and any common equipment (such as printers and cash registers) people come in contact with throughout the workday. Give disinfecting wipes to all employees and ask them to frequently clean personal surfaces they often touch, such as keyboards and telephones. Allow employees to wear masks if they wish.
Limit Gatherings - Businesses should limit gatherings to a modest size; perhaps five people safely distanced from one another. At least for now, employers should keep settings such as smaller conference rooms or supply/printing areas closed or limit the number of people who can share the space. On shop floors, employees can take breaks in staggered groups throughout the day to avoid crowding break areas.
Reign-in Travel - Travel should be discouraged unless absolutely essential, and even then, companies should make sure virus levels are low in both the home city and the destination. Businesses can probably resume domestic travel sooner than trips abroad; employers don't want staff getting caught-up in international quarantines and travel lock-outs.
Protect At-Risk Individuals – Employers should extend special considerations to those who are particularly susceptible to the virus. These include older workers and employees who; are immunocompromised, have severe heart conditions, have respiratory issues, are obese, are diabetic, or suffer from liver or chronic kidney disease.
Note - Employers need to tread lightly here and should consult legal counsel before implementing some of these measures to protect at-risk individuals; some well-intended measures to protect these workers could be perceived as discriminatory. For example, a company that reopens and asks older or higher-risk employees to continue working remotely might be charged with discrimination if those individuals feel that they've missed out on professional opportunities, just as an example.
Finally, businesses will have to adhere to the policies set by landlords, which may take precedent. And businesses that operate multiple locations may find themselves dealing with multiple jurisdictions. This could result in having to implement different precautions in different places, though a universal plan across all locations will probably be far easier to administer.
DEVELOP A MECHANISM FOR MONITORING WORKER HEALTH
Perhaps nothing will provide your employees with more confidence about returning to work than assurances that fellow co-workers (and possibly even customers) aren't infected and contagious. Some of your employees might even consider it a benefit to get tested regularly, thereby providing peace-of-mind that they aren't bringing anything back home to their families.
While temperature screenings remain the most common form of health screening companies are considering at the moment to protect their workforces, a survey earlier this month of Fortune 200 companies indicated that 25% of were considering some form of more reliable testing at worksites they plan to reopen within the next month.
That said, companies face the very same hurdles the government does in rapidly building testing capacity - tests remain tough to obtain in large quantities. Some executives advising the President have also gone on record saying that there must first be enough tests for health workers and people who are sick.
The practice of testing also raises potential issues of privacy and liability that have yet to be sorted out. General Motors is considering testing options for employees, including tests to detect antibodies. Still, privacy and logistical hurdles are said to be a sticking point, according to the auto maker's global chief of workplace safety.
Nevertheless, these concerns haven't stopped Amazon from gathering the equipment it needs to build a COVID-19 testing lab for its employees. As the Wall Street Journal reported just yesterday, the e-commerce giant has redeployed a team of scientists, procurement specialists and software engineers to work on a lab for testing front-line workers.
For companies who aren't General Motors or Amazon, administering tests could prove problematic. A common form of testing right now requires swab from the back of a person's nose or throat, and it requires a trained tester clad in full protective gear to administer. It also often elicits a cough from the patient, which could spread viral particles.
Employers probably won't be too thrilled to conduct that type of testing on-site, but it's possible that a new form of corporate testing sites could pop up in office buildings, or at nearby facilities where employees could be cleared for work thanks to the arrival of new tests that deliver results in minutes, rather than days.
Innovation is moving fast in this area. On April 13th the FDA gave emergency use authorization to a saliva-based COVID-19 test, which is far easier to administer and doesn't require qualified workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), which is in short supply. At-home testing is also in development.
It can't be stressed enough that acting on test results and storing that health data could pose quandaries for companies. Employers have long been barred from asking employees personal questions about their health or home lives. These rules probably need to be reexamined in the face of this pandemic.
In any event, employers will also want to think about ways to get reluctant employees to embrace testing. Employers should make sure a positive diagnosis doesn't become punitive, meaning that an employee who tests positive and agrees to self-isolate should continue to earn an income.
RISK ASSESSMENTS & OTHER GUIDELINES FOR CONTINUED SAFETY
While resuming operations following the COVID-19 pandemic may seem like a daunting task, businesses don't have to go it alone. While the playbook is still coming together, there are guidelines for producing a formal risk assessment, OSHA guidelines for preparing the workplace, and CDC resources for cleaning and disinfecting your facility and for handling employees who test positive for COVID-19.
For your convenience, we've also assembled two comprehensive COVID-19 Download Resource Centers designed to help employers deal with this pandemic and the challenges facing all of us as we reopen for business. Check back frequently for updates to these resource areas.