COVID-19 Alert: Getting Back to Business? Here’s What You Need to Know

After nearly two full months of lockdown in some places, the COVID-19 pandemic is finally showing signs of subsiding.  Most states are beginning to ease restrictions on public activity – or at least to chart a path for doing so.  As a consequence, many businesses are beginning to contemplate reopening workplaces to some degree. Two things will be critical to this effort:

  1. Understanding the rules and regulations in effect in your area
  2. Having a reopening plan that mitigates, as much as possible, both the health and economic risks associated with reopening

Below is some general information compiled by the labor and employment attorneys at Holm & O’Hara LLP.  We hope that this will assist you as you consider how best to move forward. This information is provided for guidance only and is not intended to substitute for legal advice. Keep in mind that every situation is different and that you may require legal advice specific to your circumstances.

New York Overview

Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced NY FORWARD, a plan for reopening New York on a region-by-region and industry-by-industry basis as they achieve 7 metrics focused on declines in mortality and reductions in hospitalizations, as well as increases in available in-patient and ICU beds.  A dashboard showing regional metric performance can be found here.

Once a region has met the threshold for reopening, businesses may resume activity in phases, prioritized by industry:

  • Phase 1:  Construction, Manufacturing, Wholesale Trade, Select Retail for Curbside Pickup, Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing
  • Phase 2:   Professional services, Finance & Insurance, Retail, Administrative Support, Real Estate, Rental and Leasing
  • Phase 3:  Restaurants and Food Services
  • Phase 4:  Arts, Entertainment, Recreation & Education

Each phase will last for two weeks.  If the region begins to slip in meeting the 7 metrics, a “circuit breaker” will be introduced to help protect the public and stop further spread of COVID-19. 

Planning to Reopen

Before inviting employees – and customers – to return to your place of business, you should institute a plan to help maintain safety and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.  An effective plan should encompass at least five fundamental strategies:

1.    Consider a staggered approach

  • Look for guidance from your local government on re-opening rules and procedures
  • Limit the number of employees returning to the office; consider using alternate-day schedules or staggered hours during the transition
  • Establish elevator social distancing guidelines, and consider changing ‘late’ policies to allow extra time
  • Confirm which employees travel to and from work via public transport and allow them to travel at off-peak times
  • Ask for volunteers for hourly and/or salary reductions before instituting layoffs
  • Determine how to best care for and accommodate employees with existing high-risk conditions
  • Host a virtual orientation or training session for employees on the safety protocols being put in place
  • Implement an organization-wide policy for requests from workers who wish to remain working from home and/or for time-off, and ensure this policy remains consistent for all departments

2.    Determine your screening process

  • Consider employee screening through the use of temperature tests, employer checks or self-checks
  • Implement protocols that allow for employees to maintain their privacy while protecting their health
  • Develop a log to keep track of employees who may have been tested, recovered, or who have antibodies
  • Ensure that employees are aware of symptoms and what constitutes ‘being sick’
  • Ask employees to report any contact with people who have tested positive such as family members, friends, etc., and make consistent but case-by-case decisions on the level of caution needed

3.    Reconfigure your workplace

  • Establish a plan to allow employees to maintain a minimum of six-foot spacing during all stages of work and reconfigure high-traffic areas to maintain social distance  
  • Consider the possible need for physical barriers such as plexiglass where distancing is impossible or impractical
  • Set up rules limiting occupancy in communal areas such as conference rooms, wellness areas, and lunch areas
  • Remove shared items temporarily, such as staplers and printers, and ensure employees have their own equipment
  • Develop hand-washing protocols and post reminders on proper hygiene within bathrooms and kitchens
  • Adopt staggered lunch hours and rest periods
  • Implement a policy for visitors, including couriers, cleaning staff, deliveries and clients
  • Review emergency evacuation procedures to ensure they allow for compliance with social distancing
  • Distribute supplies to employees and within the office so that all staff have access to masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, and disinfectant
  • Implement more robust cleaning and disinfecting procedures at both an individual and organization level

4.    Develop and formalize a standardized response to potential
       positive cases

  • Consider the relevant laws and requirements regarding employees who receive positive tests
  • Keep employees aware of any potential cases within the workplace while maintaining employee privacy
  • Determine if there is a need to notify insurance carriers or other public authorities   
  • Review sick time requirements for employees who test positive
  • Develop a procedure to deep clean infected employee workspaces
  • Coordinate with landlords or building management on positive cases within the building
  • Prepare for possible immediate temporary closures and develop procedures in the event of a shutdown
  • Document new processes and follow them consistently

5.    Keep your employees informed, safe, and motivated

  • Ensure employees understand how to stay safe both in and outside the office  
  • Develop a special committee or task force to respond to questions and concerns raised by employees
  • Update employee information and emergency contacts
  • Consider hosting virtual happy hours or video trivia nights to improve morale
  • Hand out protective gear, sanitizers and disinfectants for employees for use outside of the office
  • Maintain good communication about expectations within the workplace
  • Share mental health resources to help employees cope with the transition

The labor and employment attorneys at Holm & O’Hara LLP are ready to assist institutional clients in navigating and resolving issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other workplace and employment concerns.


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