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Experts say business owners should adopt safety practices that best fit their workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images
  • Experts say there are many challenges to reopening workplaces during the COVID-19 pandemic even with the release of federal guidelines.
  • They advise business owners to use the new recommendations simply as guideposts and to adopt measures that best fit their workplace and community.
  • Making employees feel safe is a key ingredient to a successful reopening, say experts.
  • They also recommend that businesses reopen slowly to ensure the work environment is safe.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

One expert compares it to the days of Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid.

Another says simplicity will go a long way.

They’re talking about the new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as recommendations from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on how workplaces can safely reopen as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on.

“It’s a little bit like the Wild West,” said Daniel Kalish, managing partner of HKM Employment Attorneys LLP, a national law firm that focuses on employment law. “We are figuring this out as we go along, and the speed is unprecedented in figuring out what the rules are.”

Kalish points out the guidelines are there to help businesses find their way, not to mandate changes in offices, factories, and stores.

Those in the trenches say this is no simple task.

According to Heather Macre, a healthcare attorney with Fennemore Craig, the key may be simplicity.

She suggests boiling down the guidelines to what works for your location and then adding two more things to that list: sensitivity and compassion.

“A little of that is going to go a long way,” she told Healthline.

Macre suggests businesses begin by understanding the guidelines and then applying them to what their business needs to open safely for employees as well as customers.

Rather than get bogged down by guideline suggestions such as replacing HVAC systems, she said look at what you can do.

“Most can boil them down to four basic things: mask usage, social distancing, a sick employee policy that everyone understands, and an increase in sanitation across the board,” Macre said.

The goal, she said, varies from site to site.

“My hope is people can get it down to that. To focus on the big things,” she said. “Focus on the things you can control. Focus on what you can do. Do your best and take it from there. This has never happened before so, hey, let’s meet this with as much compassion as we can.”

The challenges come from many angles.

Management wants to make sure the workplace is safe and they are not open to litigation.

Employees want to feel secure and cared for.

Customers want to know businesses are doing their best to keep them safe.

Making that happen, said Kalish, starts with the federal guidelines, but he agrees with Macre on the need for sensitivity.

“Employee morale is an important perspective here,” Kalish told Healthline. “They want to work. They just want to work in the safest environment possible. Morale will be substantial if an employer shows they care.”

Susan Canavan has owned Aura Salon1115 in Quincy, Massachusetts, for 17 years.

Reopening the last week of May took weeks of planning — weeks that took her through a journey of finding like-minded business owners, setting up Zoom calls, sharing ideas, and now the rocky road to making her business feel smooth again.

“When I looked at the proposed guidelines a month ago, beauty and barber was kind of excluded in the plan,” Canavan told Healthline.

When her state recently released guidelines, Canavan was already ahead of that curve.

She contacted salon owners across the country for advice.

“A few were just full speed ahead, forget guidelines, and I knew I didn’t want to learn from them,” she said.

She said the Zoom calls she set up helped her and all the attendees in many ways.

“It calmed me down,” she said. “It helped me learn how to move forward and still make money even not at 100 percent capacity. And it helped me learn how to take extra charge with masks, hand sanitizers, and more. This group helped me feel OK and they continue to. I call them my ‘Soul Sisters’ now.”

Still, Canavan hit bumps and realized the same thing Macre points out: compassion must be a part of every plan.

“An employee had a breakdown about it and I had to send him home,” Canavan said. “But I had to realize this is not like a ‘you say you cannot work but I know what you did last night because I saw it on Facebook’ situation. I had to draw on my sympathy. I sent him home. We talked about what we can do to help him feel safer, and he’s due to come back today.”

Canavan has rearranged her entire salon, including changing a coffee station into a sanitation station. There’s also no client indoor waiting area and tips are given via an app.

The real focus has been on helping her employees and clients understand the situation.

“I have to make them understand that this is how we do it now,” she said. “It’s so different. They want normal and I have to tell them we just cannot have normal now.”

There are legal worries surrounding reopening as well.

“When employers reopen, there’s not really a statute or rule that says, ‘You must do this,’” Kalish said. “But there is the threat of a lawsuit when a customer or employee gets sick.”

Negligence, he said, is based on not doing what a reasonable person would do, but, “What does a reasonable person do (in this situation now)?” he explained. “That’s’ going to be for a jury to decide later.”

Kalish points out it is not unusual for workplace law to work itself out in the courts.

Kalish cautions business operators not to be too focused on simply avoiding a lawsuit. The success of a reopening is business success. That, he said, is based very much on employee morale.

“If you want to annoy your employees, show them you don’t care about their health,” he said. “Morale will be substantial (even as a business works through the kinks of a new plan) if the employer cares.”

In other words, as Canavan did, be tuned in with how your employees are feeling and be ready to work with them to make things better.

“The safest thing would be for employees to never come back (to the business location), but that cannot happen with many businesses,” he said. “Employees don’t expect perfection, they just want you to try hard. They just expect reasonable set-ups.”

Ben Wakana, executive director of Patients For Affordable Drugs, said his organization has just moved to new offices in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Despite that, there will be no rush to return.

“Until there is a vaccine or cure, or other complete management of the virus, we will not require any staff to visit the office. If we open the office at limited capacity in stage 3, it will be optional,” Wakana told Healthline.

“Our staff is our greatest asset. Several of our colleagues have health conditions that put them at high risk from COVID-19. They need to work from home,” he said. “We’ve set up systems and processes to help smooth out the challenges of working virtually, and we believe we can be effective in lowering drug prices if we’re together in an office building or connecting virtually. We certainly miss seeing each other in person… but the bottom line is, if we can do our jobs virtually and protect our staff, it’s a no-brainer.”

Russell Carr, president of Berg Compliance Solutions in Austin, Texas, has been working with companies large and small across the nation to help them be ready to reopen.

He sees the challenge as bigger for smaller companies who may not have the same resources as large, but even larger businesses, so far, have issues.

“Most companies are implementing bits and pieces. We have yet to see one hitting all the points (in the CDC guidelines),” Carr told Healthline.

His advice? Make the investment in hiring an expert who understands all this.

“When you look at what the risks are, the risk of not doing it are going to be larger,” he said. “Make the investment.”

He advises company managers to “lead by example.”

“Sure you need signage, training (for things like PPE wear, mask usage, and how to distance in the workspace) but most of all, you need senior level people leading by example,” he said. “You can put the best plan in place, but it is not going to be followed if leadership does not follow by example. Top down is absolutely how it works.”

Kalish says reopening doesn’t have to be expensive.

“This does not have to be a million dollar investment,” he said. “If you are Amazon with thousands of employees, sure. But if you are the falafel shop, you don’t need to go bankrupt to do this.”

His most important piece of advice from the guidelines? Do all you reasonably can, no matter what you may think of it.

“You know what will trip up businesses?” he said. “Ignoring the guidelines. You better take this as real, even if you don’t think this is real. Even if you don’t believe this is needed, that’s not the reasonable voice from the majority. And the majority? That’s your client base.”