Unlocking the front door: Keys to reopening your business safely after COVID-19

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06/22/2020
Adam Miller

The coronavirus pandemic’s effect on daily life has been unprecedented, and everyone—including business owners—has looked forward to returning to normal (in whatever shape that takes). Whether you find yourself in an area that has already lifted stay-at-home orders or is about to, there’s a lot to consider before resuming operations.

Especially in the health care space, your customers may be part of a vulnerable population. And to protect your customers, your employees and your community, it’s important to do your due diligence when opening your business to the public in the wake of this public health emergency.

When Should I Reopen?

Essential businesses like hospitals and clinics, grocery stores, gas stations, etc., have remained open, at least in part, during the pandemic. However, nonessential businesses have remained closed, disrupting operations and the bottom line. In the case of HME providers, equipment fulfillment may have remained in place, but most retail operations have likely been down.

As stay-at-home restrictions are eased and businesses are allowed to resume as normal, is it really safe to reopen completely? How do you know it’s the right moment? Consider the following to help you answer your questions:

  • Review recommendations from state and local governments, federal agencies, and your peers. The COVID-19 pandemic impacted every industry in every region, but it didn’t necessarily impact them in the same ways. Every state will handle their decision differently. That said, just because you’re allowed to open doesn’t mean it’s the right time. Look to the relevant orders and recommendations. Your local officials and peers will be especially useful resources, as they’ll have a better understanding of the population you serve.
  • Understand the risks. If and when you’re allowed to reopen completely, it may be worth doing so in phases to prevent additional risk. After all, COVID-19 may still be a risk in your area, even if it’s diminished. It’s critical that you perform a risk assessment before reopening to establish the specific steps necessary for your unique business to keep your staff and customers safe. Review guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), state and local agencies, industry associations, as well as your local health department. We also recommend seeking the expertise of legal, insurance and other professionals.


How Do I Assess My Risk?

Now that we’ve established that resuming your business operations safely isn’t as simple as unlocking the front door, how do you determine the proper steps to take? Start by performing a risk assessment. The complexity can vary from one business to another, but all risk assessments share the following steps in common:

  • Identify hazards. Think critically about your exposures. It’s best to assume that someone exposed to COVID-19 entered your place of business. Walk the premises and consider high-risk areas, such as places where people linger or congregate like breakrooms. Next, consider the tasks employees perform. Does their job function put them at higher risk of exposure? 
  • Determine who is more at risk and how. After identifying hazards, look at who in your workforce and customer base might be at higher risk. For example, a high-risk individual may be an employee who meets with customers or a customer with preexisting medical conditions.
  • Analyze the risks. Once you’ve identified each risk facing your business, ask yourself: What’s the likelihood this risk will occur? If it does, what are the potential consequences? Some consequences to consider include potential financial losses, compliance requirements, employee safety, business disruptions and reputational harm to name a few.
  • Strategize. With an understanding of the threats facing your business, you can now develop a strategy for controlling and managing them. Some methods to consider include:
  1. Risk avoidance—involves eliminating certain hazards, activities and exposures from your operations entirely. For example, you might continue certain activities remotely to avoid unnecessary exposure for employees.
  2. Risk control—involves taking preventative action. This could include aggressive cleaning protocols or continuing to mandate the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
  3. Risk transfer—involves transferring your exposure to a third party. If, for example, you regularly make deliveries to your customers, you could instead hire a third party to fulfill these requests on your behalf.
  • 4 Monitor the results. Risk management is a continuous process. As your risks evolve—whether due to COVID-19 or any other circumstance—you’ll need to monitor the effectiveness of your solution. Reassess regularly and make adjustments as necessary. 
     

How Do I Keep My Workplace Safe?

Risks and solutions can differ widely from one business to another. Fortunately, OSHA and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer a host of workplace controls to consider. For instance, you should:

  • Enact administrative controls. Administrative controls include changes in policies or procedures that lessen individuals’ exposure to a hazard in the workplace. For example, you may continue reducing the number of employees in an area at a given time by alternating days or adding shifts.
  • Mandate the use of PPE. If your business decides to continue requiring PPE, ensure employees understand how to properly put on, take off, and care for PPE, as well as best practices and when it’s required. Create training material that is easy to understand for all workers.
  • Install engineering controls: Engineering controls remove hazards or place barriers between the worker and the hazard. Some common engineering controls following COVID-19 include:
  1. High-efficiency air filters
  2. Increased ventilation rates in the work environment
  3. Physical barriers, such as a clear plastic guard, placed between the worker and customer at the register
  • Be flexible: Be prepared to change your business practices to continue maintaining essential operations, as many did when the public health emergency first started. Adaptive measures can include identifying alternative suppliers, prioritizing existing customers, or continuing to temporarily halt or slow down some aspects of your operations, such as your retail space.
  • Speak to your vendors and partners: When crises like COVID-19 hit, we’re better off helping one another. Continue to discuss your response and reopening plans with your business partners. Share best practices with businesses in the communities you serve along with those in your supply chain.
  • Continue to encourage social distancing: Social distancing, sometimes referred to as physical distancing, is the practice that aims to minimize the spread of disease by increasing the physical space between people. Consider maintaining the following best practices:
  1. Avoid gatherings of 10 or more people. This also means continuing to limit the number of people in the workplace.
  2. Keep at least six feet between yourself and other people. Making aisles one-ways in your facilities and placing floor graphics reminding customers to keep their distance can help.
  3. Continue to host some meetings or appointments virtually. This might include virtual equipment setups and other telehealth options.
  4. Continue encouraging staff to work from home whenever possible.
  • Adjust staffing to manage various risk levels: Note that some employees may be at higher risk for serious illness, such as older adults and those with chronic medical conditions. Continue to minimize the amount of face-to-face contact higher risk employees have with others. Adjust their tasks so they can more easily maintain six feet of distance from their co-workers and customers.
  • Separate symptomatic employees: Employees who exhibit symptoms of illness should stay home. If one of your employees has a confirmed case of COVID-19, you should inform other employees of their possible exposure and instruct them on how to proceed based on the CDC Public Health Recommendations for Community-Related Exposure.
  • Support proper etiquette and hygiene: Encourage your employees to cough or sneeze into a tissue or their upper arm. Businesses should continue to encourage good hygiene to prevent further spread of COVD-19. This can involve:
  1. Tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles
  2. Soap and water for proper hand washing
  3. Hand sanitizer dispensers in multiple locations
  • Clean and disinfect the workplace regularly: To keep your employees and customers safe, it’s vital to continue sanitizing your workplace regularly and thoroughly. Some best practices include:
  1. Focus on frequently touched surfaces (e.g., workstations and registers, keyboards, telephones, handrails, and doorknobs), ensuring they’re properly disinfected. Check the label on your preferred cleaner to find the contact time needed to disinfect a surface.
  2. Discourage workers from sharing equipment (e.g., phones, desks, or other tools) when possible. If items must be shared, clean and disinfect them before and after each use.
  3. Provide disposable wipes so employees can easily disinfect commonly used surfaces before and after they use them.

What Else Should I Know?

Reopening your business in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic may not be as simple as unlocking the front door, but there are plenty of resources available to help along the way. When in doubt, remember that your insurance agent or broker is in the business of helping you mitigate risk. Contact them when you need help determining what steps you need to take to open your business safely.

Adam Miller is a senior HME program manager for VGM Insurance. Reach him at adam.miller@vgm.com or on LinkedIn.