Earlier this year, many businesses had to close their doors and halt operations to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Now, as stay-at-home orders lift, business owners are facing new challenges and questions as they make plans to reopen. It’s not easy. Reopening a business during COVID-19 requires a thorough process and involves several factors that need to be addressed before employees return.
Even “essential” businesses, which have remained open, need to make sure they are adapting and following new safety procedures to protect their employees, customers and the business itself.
To help, here are eight steps that most businesses can take to safely get back to business:
1. Inspect the building.
If your building has been vacant, it’s important to take a close look at the facility and document and fix any damage to ensure that the building is ready to occupy again. Here’s what to look for:
- Inspect the perimeter for signs of trespassing or vandalism.
- Look for signs of rodent or insect infestation.
- Inspect your roof and look for signs of water damage, especially if your building experienced any severe weather events while you were gone.
- Inspect workspaces, tools, equipment and/or machinery.
If needed, report damage to your insurance company and begin the claim process.
It’s also important to check your building’s fire protection system, security system and HVAC system to make sure everything is working properly. Check your HVAC air filters and replace them if needed. Consider replacing filters with what is recommended to control COVID-19 transmission.
2. Consult expert resources.
Continually monitor the World Health Organization (WHO), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as well as state and local guidelines for changes in recommendations, cleaning strategies and other best practices for your type of business. For example, the CDC offers numerous resources for businesses, OSHA has thorough control and prevention information, and both websites offer industry-specific guidance.
You could also consider hiring an industrial hygiene expert to help you put together the best plan for your business to keep your employees and customers safe.
Finally, be sure to review your insurance policies with your agent and ask about your business liability coverage, which could help protect your business during a lawsuit, subject to the terms of your policy.
3. Write your plan.
Taking the time to write down your reopening plan is the best way to ensure its success and help protect your business, employees and customers. It should include preparing your office to reopen, training and communicating with your employees, connecting with vendors and communicating with customers.
It’s also important to maintain and revise your plan as needed, for example, if new guidelines are issued from the WHO, CDC or state or local authorities.
4. Prepare your office.
Areas within the building that need to be addressed include:
- Workplace configuration
- Conference rooms, lobby and other common areas
When reconfiguring your office space, make adjustments to provide physical distancing and enhance cleaning and disinfecting, such as:
- Eliminating your lobby or reception area and asking customers or guests to phone ahead when they arrive. Or install a plastic partition at the reception area.
- Removing or reconfiguring seats, furniture and workstations as needed to maintain physical distance between people according to current guidelines.
- Avoiding workstations where employees face each other; or installing partitions if facing each other is unavoidable.
- Removing or finding alternatives for amenities that are touched frequently, such as the water cooler or coffee maker. Or you can use signage to deter the use of amenities.
- Providing and requiring cleaning and disinfectants to wipe down shared amenities, such as vending machines, after each use.
Shared spaces, like conference rooms, lobbies, security check-ins and other common areas should be cleaned and disinfected at least daily. You should provide disinfectant wipes or spray in each conference room and common area and encourage employees to wipe down all surfaces and equipment that they touch while using the area. Post signage to help regulate the use of common areas, such as maximum occupancies and physical distancing reminders. Do not make food available in common areas or have communal meals, like potlucks.
If your workplace has a kitchen, it should be cleaned and disinfected frequently, including:
- Kitchen equipment that’s touched frequently, like coffee machines, refrigerator handles, ice machine handles, water/beverage faucets and the outside of dishwashers should be cleaned routinely, at least three times day.
- Ice machines that require a handheld scoop should not be used.
- Silverware and dishes should be cleaned in the dishwasher and kept clean and covered. Silverware should be stored in a way that adjacent silverware is not easily touched. Or you can provide disposable options for dishes and silverware that remain clean and covered until use.
Restrooms should also be cleaned frequently and updated to limit employees touching surfaces. For example:
- Make sure doors to multi-stall restrooms can be opened and closed without touching handles if at all possible. Consider installing a foot door opener.
- For single restrooms, provide signage and materials (e.g., paper towels and trash cans) for people to use to avoid touching handles.
- Toilet lids (if present) should be closed before flushing.
- Place signs asking employees to wash their hands before and after using the restroom.
- Provide paper towels in restrooms and disconnect or tape-off hand air dryers.
Finally, evaluate the ventilation system at your office, including the use of fans, to try to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Here are a few recommendations:
- Maximize fresh air through your ventilation system.
- Make sure your restrooms are under negative pressure.
- Ensure that the proper filtration is being used not only for normal office use, but also what is recommended to control the spread of COVID-19.
- Clean and disinfect all HVAC intakes and returns daily.
- Consider working with an HVAC professional and see ASHRAE updates for more information.
- If your facility uses fans, such as pedestal fans or hard mounted fans, take steps to minimize air from fans blowing from one person directly onto another person.
- If your fans are disabled or removed, take steps to prevent heat hazards.
5. Document new procedures.
Your office during COVID-19 is going to be very different from the office you had before it. Because you and your employees will be encountering many changes, it will help everyone to adjust by:
- Documenting new procedures and reviewing and updating them if guidelines change.
- Providing training to employees and a way for them to communicate questions and concerns.
- Adding signage to help guide employees during the workday.
- Making sure that you have resources or supplies on hand to implement the procedures.
For example, some states require businesses to take the temperature of every employee before they enter the facility, so business owners would need to have a procedure in place to safely collect their employees’ temperatures and know how to appropriately handle an employee who comes to work with a fever or becomes ill during the workday.
To help employees follow physical distancing procedures, provide training and post signage as reminders, especially in common areas where people tend to hang out or have meetings. You should also change the way you meet and use virtual meeting tools, instant messaging or the telephone instead of meeting in groups. If in-person meetings are unavoidable, limit them to 10 people or less, following current guidelines. You should also keep in-person meetings brief and discourage lingering or socializing before or after the meeting. Similar to in-person meetings, encourage employees not to linger or socialize in common areas.
You’ll also need a comprehensive cleaning and disinfection procedure. Consider using a checklist or audit system to track when and how cleaning is being done. Make sure your procedure includes:
- Establishing a schedule, ensuring that all contact surfaces at your building are being cleaned and disinfected regularly. Consider asking employees to remove personal items before leaving work each day to facilitate cleaning and disinfecting.
- Providing proper personal protective equipment (PPE), like masks, gloves or protective eyewear, and training to custodial staff, or employees if they are responsible for cleaning and disinfecting, to help keep them safe.
- Following protocols for the applications of disinfectants and contact time.
- Using disposable products whenever possible.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a list of products that meet the EPA’s criteria for use against COVID-19. Make sure you review product labels and follow manufacturer instructions. You can also consult an industrial hygiene expert if you need additional advice.
6. Prepare your employees.
Communication is key. Communicate with your employees often and openly throughout this process. Explain what is being done to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the office and provide a way for employees to express their concerns, questions, comments and feedback. This is going to be a stressful time for many employees, so try to be understanding and flexible. Do what you can to ensure employee comfort and address their concerns. It will help employees feel more confident during this stressful time.
Share information about work-from-home options, flexible work schedules (to help employees who are caring for others), or alternative work schedules, such as staggering work shifts to help employees follow physical distancing guidelines. Communicate if there will be any changes to office hours, work shifts or public access to the building.
Prior to reopening, you’ll need to notify employees of new office policies and provide training on new procedures.
Explain health checks and reporting requirements for individuals infected with COVID-19 and encourage employees to save this information. Also, share any requirements for individuals who are living with someone infected with COVID-19. Tell employees how to evaluate their health before coming into work each day, including staying home if they feel sick or have a fever. It’s also important to make sure your business continues to follow Human Resource policies, HIPPA guidelines or other laws regarding the health and health information of your employees.
Tell employees about new arrival and departure procedures, such as where to go for temperature screenings or to wash their hands prior to working and prior to leaving for the day. Ask employees to also follow good hygiene while at work, including washing their hands or using hand sanitizer, avoiding touching their face, and covering their cough or sneeze. You can also provide and encourage employees to wear face coverings, gloves or shoe covers. If you do, provide training on how to appropriately use these items. Also, make sure everyone is aware that homemade face coverings primarily protect others, not their self.
7. Communicate with vendors.
If your building has been vacant, remember to notify some key partners of your return and new procedures that may affect them, including your:
- Local police department
- Insurance agent or company
- Security service
- Cleaning service
- Landscaping service
- Other vendors who visit your building
If you use a custodial or cleaning service, have a conversation with them about new cleaning and disinfecting procedures. You should also try to make sure that custodial staff is able to wear appropriate PPE for cleaning and disinfecting and that they are trained on how to use the PPE. These service members are at an increased risk of being exposed to the virus and to any toxic effects of the cleaning chemicals, so it’s important to try to keep them safe. Make sure they know how to follow instructions for applying the disinfectants according to the label, including contact time.
8. Communicate with customers.
Put together a plan for communicating with customers. Keep them informed on the best way to work with you and buy your products or services. Tell them about new procedures you’ve adopted to help keep everyone safe and work to earn their confidence and trust. Also let customers know if there will be any changes to your products, services, office hours, delivery methods, arrival or departure procedures, or if you’d like customers to wear PPE, such as a face covering, while visiting your business.
Realize that many customers may not feel comfortable visiting your office or conducting business with you in the same way they did before. Think through alternative solutions to serve your customers from home that can help address their needs while living in quarantine. Consider sending your customers a quick survey to learn what their comfort level is with the current situation and how your business can continue to serve them.
Continue to communicate with customers as things change, using your company email list or social media to stay connected and keep customers engaged — whether they’re excited to visit your reopened business or they feel safer shopping at home.
– American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA)
– Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS)
This article is for informational and suggestion purposes only. If the policy coverage descriptions in this article conflict with the language in the policy, the language in the policy applies. If you have questions about your Grange business insurance coverage, talk with your independent insurance agent.