(The fifth in a series on the impacts of the coronavirus on employment and the workplace. The first four are here).
On Friday, President Trump announced a task force on reopening the national economy. Also on Friday, several Governors, including California Governor Newsom, announced they were developing plans on state reopening processes and strategies.
Good. Though the dates for reopening our economy will depend on the COVID 19 case data we’ll be getting over the next few weeks, now is the time to plan for reopening. COVID 19 has no economic precedent. But we are not without guidance. We can draw on the ways that essential businesses that have continued operations over the past six weeks have adapted and innovated. Though little noted in the media, within a short time, businesses have moved rapidly to develop new protocols and even forms of collaboration to meet the changed COVID 19 environment.
To help us understand the adaptions and lessons going forward, let us bring in Paul P.Josephson, a partner at Duane Morris LLP, and former Chief Counsel to the Governor of New Jersey. Josephson has been advising businesses, as they take aggressive measures for safety of workers and customers, while continuing operations.
New Business Protocols To Promote Worker Safety: The top priority for businesses across all sectors, according to Josephson, is to adapt with safety protocols. Josephson was involved in business reopening efforts in 2001, following the September 11 attacks. “Even after the New York area governments gave the green light to reopening business operations, it took some time for workers to become comfortable returning to high rise office buildings and other workplaces in the World Trade Center area.” The key, according to Josephson, was restoring public confidence that the area was safe, and high density buildings were adequately protected—which was done through a series of new security and environmental protocols.
Similarly, when leaders officially re-open economic activity, workers and customers are unlikely to have the confidence to come back unless they see actions for COVID 19 protection. Josephson notes that many essential businesses in operation already have put into place a range of new safety protocols, among which have been:
- Testing, including temperature testing.
- Masks and social distancing.
- Sending symptomatic employees home and instituting return to work clearances.
- Workplace disinfecting strategies.
The business response has not been static, and each of these strategies has evolved over the past six weeks and will continue to evolve as more is learned of virus protection.
Voluntary Business Collaborations to Ensure Worker and Customer Safety: Beyond the safety measures, Josephson notes that businesses within sectors are forming new voluntary collaborations to ensure worker and customer safety. He points to the cannabis industry as one example. “Competing cannabis dispensaries, which have been deemed essential businesses in most states, are beginning to collaborate to reduce the customer lines in any dispensary. By increasing wholesaling of products to their competitors, they are reducing travel times and exposure for patients. To reduce lines forming outside dispensaries because social distancing measures limit the number who can safely wait inside a store, dispensaries are being encouraged to send overflow customers to other dispensaries.”
By wholesaling product to competitors, the business is less likely to lose a sale if it must turn away a customer because of long lines and overcrowding. “Fifty percent of something is better than 100% percent of no sale.”
Utilizing Big Data to Track Infections and Respond Rapidly: Josephson notes that mobile communication technology is already changing the game. “The countries that have been most successful so far in bouncing back are those, like Singapore and Taiwan, that are compact enough to allow for rapid contact tracing to prevent a flare up.
China has implemented a phone app that allows officials to trace where a COVID 19 patient has been the last 14 days. Google and Apple have announced they are working on similar technology.”
“This creates very real concerns about privacy generally and protected health information specifically, and how the data will be used. But the fact of the matter is that most of us already use (or tolerate) geolocation technology that feeds us advertising based on where we are at a given moment.” Geolocation data can be used to enhance contact tracing significantly.” Josephson notes that already, a Norwegian company that tracks where users go to create better playlists and recommendations, Unacast, has made publicly available online a social distancing index based on currently available geolocation data.
Reopening, Pivoting and Longer-Term Strategies: OSHA issued Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 in March. Josephson advises that any business should consider those voluntary measures mandatory reading. “And of course, that guidance won’t be the last word. As scientists learn more about COVID-19, how it is transmitted, how we can more readily detect its presence, and especially how we can neutralize the virus, that guidance will change. Businesses need to be nimble and stay on top of the latest research and recommendations.”
Josephson draws on his experiences in government, business and law, and advises that while we look at reopening in the near future, businesses should also be thinking longer-term—“Plan your work, and work your plan.” After 9/11, many businesses that never gave the issue a thought implemented disaster preparedness plans. “But few of those plans considered a pandemic. Here in New Jersey, our state government began “tabletop exercises” after 9/11 where we had to respond to another disaster. Our first was an unknown and highly infectious disease appearing at one of our hospitals. The hard decisions we had to make about quarantines and rationing health care back then in theory are now being made daily in the real world. But as a result we figured out the questions we didn’t have answers to, and prepared on the law and the difficult issues we’d confront in times like today. That preparation has been invaluable.”
Likewise, businesses should prepare an infectious disease preparedness and response plan. “While this experience is fresh in our minds, businesses should develop plans for the next pandemic. Dr. Fauci had been trying to remind us for years that another pandemic was not only possible, it was inevitable. Most of us preferred to ignore those uncomfortable warnings. We can’t make the same mistake again.”
Even with best practices in reopening the economy, the new job world will be much different for employers and workers. We don’t know how many of the small businesses that closed during the shutdown will open again. More broadly, for major sectors of our economy—travel, hospitality, retail, airlines—it will be years before employment levels come back, if they ever do, and then in altered form.
Still, there is positive news this weekend. From many quarters of the United States comes news of a “flattening the curve” in new cases, and fatality levels far below the models. Yesterday, Easter Sunday, even the cautious Dr. Fauci began to speak of a rolling economic reopening in May.
Originally published in Forbes