Coronavirus: What Employers Need to Know

The coronavirus is prompting small business owners to re-examine their workplace policies and procedures

As the world’s public health organizations and governments scramble to slow the spread of the coronavirus, small business owners are working to organize their own response to the outbreak while minimizing the disruption to day-to-day operations.

Not sure where to start? Here’s what SBOs need to know about the coronavirus.

What is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses named for their crown-like microscopic appearance.

“They are an extremely common cause of colds and other upper respiratory infections,” according to Harvard Medical School.

Coronaviruses have also been responsible for more serious infections, like SARS and MERS, and are behind the current global outbreak we’re experiencing. This novel, or new, coronavirus has been named COVID-19 but it’s usually just referred to as “the coronavirus.”

Transmission of coronavirus happens through community spread, or from person-to-person.

The outbreak started in Wuhan, China and has spread rapidly through the globe. New infections continue to rise and the commissioner of the FDA recently warned that the U.S. is “past the point of containment.”

How does the virus spread?

Easily.

Transmission of coronavirus happens through community spread, or from person-to-person. The virus appears to be extremely contagious, making the workplace a prime location for viral transmission.

Individuals within 6 feet of an infected person are most at risk because the coronavirus is transmitted through small drops of liquid that are expelled when someone coughs or sneezes.

These respiratory droplets are then inhaled by other people or spread to objects, called fomites, which serve as a point of transmission for the virus. Common fomites include doorknobs, elevator buttons, light switches, handrails, and pens.

Read more: Should I Make My Own Hand Sanitizer?

How to make your own hand sanitizer workest

What are the signs and symptoms?

Symptoms take between 1 an 14 days to appear and can include fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. Some affected individuals go on to develop lung lesions and pneumonia. In healthy individuals, the coronavirus may be mistaken for a common cold or the flu, so it’s vital to seek medical help if you are feeling ill.

What to do

 If your employees travel for work …

The CDC has issued level-3 travel warnings, “reconsider all nonessential travel” for China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran. If your employees have plans to travel to any of these countries for work, cancel the trip immediately.

Based on the CDC’s level-2 travel warnings, SBOs should “practice enhanced precautions” with travel to Japan. It’s expected that the CDC will escalate more countries to level-2 travel warnings in the days and weeks to come.

Make sure your small business is staying on top of travel health notice changes.

If your employees are intending on attending conferences and trade shows…

SBOs are wise to reconsider employee attendance at big events. If you’re an SBO who has employees attending a large trade show or conference, you may want to withdraw your small business’ participation.

Additionally, it’s very likely the event could be cancelled.

The Bay Area’s massive gaming conference GDC planned for March 20 has been postponed in an effort to slow the continued coronavirus spread. And it’s not the only one: Google has cancelled its I/O developer conference, as has the organizing team behind the health tech HIMSS conference.

CDC recommends that anyone who is at medium or high risk for exposure to the virus — people who’ve been in contact with a sick person or travelled to a high-risk region — should be barred from the workplace for 2 weeks.

But the largest event with the widest reach to join the growing list of cancellations is SXSW. Austin’s mayor cited recommendations from public health officials in his decision to cancel this year’s festival.

It’s not hard to see why: the large, global crowds these events draw make the likelihood of coming into contact with a contaminated person much more likely.

If an employee travels to an infected zone …

CDC recommends that anyone who is at medium or high risk for exposure to the virus — people who’ve been in contact with a sick person or travelled to a high-risk region — should be barred from the workplace for 2 weeks.

If the individual is still symptom free after 2 weeks, they can return to the office.

If an employee gets sick with the coronavirus …

The coronavirus in the workplace is unlike anything businesses have faced before. Big companies with near-unlimited resources that are dealing with the virus, like Microsoft and Amazon, are doing their best to cobble together a response in light of this unprecedented event.

The coronavirus in the workplace is unlike anything businesses have faced before.

SBOs face even more challenges in dealing with the coronavirus because of their limited resources.

  • Identify any other employees the sick individual has come in contact with.
  • Strongly encourage the infected employee and those they have been in contact with to stay home.
  • Adopt a remote-first philosophy for the next month (Amazon has told all employees to stay home until the end of March).
  • Communicate with your employees. Be transparent, sensitive, and prescriptive with the actions they need to take in order to reduce the risk of transmission.
  • If the employee begins feeling sick at work, encourage them to seek medical treatment and to limit exposure to the public as much as possible. This means avoiding public transportation and ride sharing services and taxis.

Read more: A List of States and Cities with Paid Sick Leave Laws

Other steps SBOs can take to protect their workplace

  • Temporarily ban visitors to prevent additional opportunities for exposure.
  • Outline the measures you’re taking and policies you’re implementing in a company-wide email.
  • Make sure employees have practical information and know you’re taking the issue seriously.
  • Ask employees to postpone non-essential travel to contaminated areas, both foreign and domestic, including to the Bay Area, Seattle, and New York.
  • Cancel in-person interviews and move the process online.

Remote work

Working from home is one of the easiest steps a small business can take to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Have employees bring their laptops and chargers home every night and be ready to transition to remote work with little notice.

And when remote work’s not an option?

But we recognize remote work isn’t an option for all businesses, like those in manufacturing or retail. Other steps you can take are:

  • Put up posters around the workplace educating employees about hygiene etiquette and listing the symptoms of the coronavirus.
  • Place hand sanitizer around the workplace and make sure soap is well-stocked.
  • Discourage handshakes and person-to-person contact.
  • Cancel face-to-face meetings and communicate through memos instead.
  • Increase cleaning, especially door handles, light switches, refrigerator handles, and anything else commonly handled or touched in the office.

What about masks?

While it may be tempting to permanently adopt a mask until the virus has been contained, in truth it won’t do much to protect you. Moreover, the CDC “does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.

Unless you have the coronavirus — in which case you should contact a health professional, follow their directions, and wear a mask if you must make contact with another person or go out in public — a mask doesn’t do much to protect you from the virus. What’s more, your purchase may actually be harmful to the efforts to contain the virus.

That’s because the nervous general public has nearly cleaned out the global supply. The WHO has warned of a continued shortage of masks and a shortage of other personal protective equipment on the horizon. Healthcare workers are having trouble getting access to the masks they need to protect their patients and themselves, and if healthcare workers can’t protect themselves, they only contribute to the spread through the community.

Lastly, try not to panic

It can be hard to stay cool amidst global panic. The reality is that most healthy, young people face little risk of becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus. Viral spread is scary and harmful, but so is the distrust, anger, and xenophobia the outbreak is sowing.

Document your small business’ plan, wash your hands often, and stay home if you’re sick. These measures will protect you more than anxious purchases or fear-based behavior.

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