At the time of this writing, the Center for Disease Control is issuing new guidance to cancel any gatherings over 50 people and European countries are going on full lockdown. There’s plenty of reasons to think the United States, and even our far-from-the-coast midsized city on the Great Plains, might be facing the same.

Current guidance from the Douglas County Health Department covering most of Omaha requests that organizations plan for more extreme measures as gatherings over 50 peoples are banned and a list of community exposures continues to grow.

Flattening the COVID-19 Curve

Bottom line, the biggest threat from the COVID-19 pandemic to a modern healthcare system is an overwhelming influx of cases that forces medical providers to ration life-saving resources, creating shortages that lead to deaths and permanent injuries that might have been preventable. While the medically compromised and elderly are the most vulnerable, COVID-19 threatens and kills healthy younger people as well. By slowing infections, we can “flatten the curve” of hospitalizations. Supporting these measures shows your company’s concern for everyone in this fight against a pandemic.

 

Pandemics Have Endings

This interactive infection map from the University of Washington’s Humanistic GIS Lab shows COVID-19’s progress in different countries. Based on this, you can see the time it’s taking for countries first hit to start flattening their infection curves, slowing the rates of infection. For Japan it took 4 weeks and for South Korea its taken 2 weeks, where aggressive measures were taken with widespread testing. To see what we possibly face here in the United States, you can look at the infection rates for Italy or Spain.

Prepare for the worst and hope for the best, but make sure you’re considering these options for how your local business can respectfully respond in a pandemic that threatens to lock up many business activities for at least a month or two.

 

Start Communications & Planning Internally for Responding to a Pandemic

Two websites to bookmark and monitor are the Center for Disease Control’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers and the Small Business Administration’s Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Here’s some important highlights:

 

Take Care of Your People to Take Care of Your Business

This should be a no-brainer step to protecting your employees, your customers and your business. 

Require sick employees to stay home

Anyone with symptoms of respiratory illness or fever (a body temperature over 100.4° with an oral thermometer) should self-quarantine at home. It’s flu season, so this could be the seasonal flu, something it’s important to still keep a lid on. The lead symptoms of COVID-19 occur 2-14 days after exposure and have been marked by a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath according to the CDC. Anyone showing these symptoms should contact a health care professional to evaluate their exposure factors. At this time, local health departments are recommending testing in 3 parts: 1) Seasonal flu; 2) Respiratory scan; and then 3) a COVID-19 test (which you can expect to be in limited supply for some time, so please be patient).

  • Review Personal Leave Policies to support these recommendations

  • Don’t require sick notes from medical professionals likely overwhelmed evaluating and treating important casts

  • Extend personal leave to allow your team to stay home to take care of others in their family, including children out of school, until other arrangements can be made

  • Encourage employees to evaluate their own home finances and forbearance and credit extension programs available from their banks or credit unions

Optimize and reinforce hygiene & exposure minimization policies

Start internally communicating and reinforcing policies that help slow down and fight the pandemic. Post CDC approved notices requiring sick employees to immediately go and stay home, and reinforce key hygiene and exposure minimization policies, including:

  • Reviewing recent employee travel (the last 14 days) and requiring self-quarantine for employees who have visited hot spots (currently China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, probably any cruise ship and Iran, but soon to include most of Europe, Seattle, New Rochelle, NY and other emerging focal points)
  • Cough and sneeze etiquette, provide tissues and no-touch receptacles

  • Handwashing, instruct employees to wash hands often with soap and water

  • Clean frequently touched surfaces with cleaners and try to provide disposable wipes to be used by employees before each use

  • Implement social distancing practices, maintaining 6 feet of separation and keeping personal contact times down. Rather than hosting internal meetings in-person, do them in-place with video conferencing tools

  • Unless you’re in healthcare, deathcare, airline operations or waste management, the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration considers your work low-risk.

Create an internal response task force

This particular emergency will be fast-changing and requires a particularly focused and nimble response from your organization. Buidling an internal team to respond proactively and quickly can be a key step to navigating any crisis. Some important components to this task force include:

  • Engaging key decision-makers, including managers that oversee customer service or interactions, sales and your communications/marketing lead.

  • Developing a plan to first respond internally — quickly and transparently — and then externally, to your customers, providers and the public.

  • Proactively create clarity and security for employees, one of the key lessons learned early in China according to the Harvard Business Review

  • Start cross-training for key responsibilities in key positions. This will create resiliency within your organization as individuals need to self-quarantine, self-isolate or stay home to take care of family.

  • A minimum 4-8 week disruption in business anywhere in the world, particularly in China and Europe, top global manufacturers, threatens to disrupt supply chains everywhere. Immediately review inventory and your supply chains to identify possible shortages and to develop mitigation strategies.

  • Game plan different scenarios based on immediate business shutdowns, loss of employees and loss of supply chains to be prepared for how your company will respond. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has emergency planning exercises for you can use.

Evaluate available resources to handle extreme business drops

Almost every business is looking at its expenses, fixed and variable, and its cash position to determine how long it can handle an extreme business drop.

  • Discuss financing options with your bank. Many banks and credit providers have forbearance or credit extension programs available in emergencies.

  • Evaluate federal assistance and emergency, low interest loans available from the Small Business Administration when a state of emergency is declared.

  • Review insurance coverage for business interruption and contingent business interruption to see if your company may be eligible. Unfortunately, most require “direct physical loss or damage,” something a pandemic doesn’t trigger for coverage according to the New York Times.

Find nimble responses to this pandemic for your company

The Harvard Business Review has a recent article exploring lessons learned from the pandemic’s start in Wuhan, China as things have started to stabilize there. Some key findings from that article include:

  • Prioritize customers and stay in close contact

  • Deploy resources to help customers

  • Reallocate labor flexibility – restaurants, hotels and cinemas shared staff with home delivery services

  • Shift to more online services, consultations on video chat, virtual educations for customers

  • Use social media to coordinate employees and partners

  • Plan to push scheduling out

  • Prepare for a faster recovery

  • Accelerate transitions to new habits being formed, particularly online and digital behaviors

Prepare External Communications and Consistent Follow-ups

While Forrester Research’s clients are usually global brands, there are some important lessons from their Responding to Coronavirus Playbook for Marketing and Communications that apply to any local business:

  • Acknowledge and address the pandemic. Based on internal discovery and deliberations, every business should have a statement about the pandemic available on their online channels. These statements should include, with some examples:

  • Concern for the community. The Bookworm issued an outstanding COVID-19 statement that led with its concerns for the community.

  • Concern for your customers. Clarify hygiene and exposure minimization tactics. This COVID-19 statement from the Chocolate Sanctuary, sent by email, is a good example.

  • Concern for your employees. Whether your plan for helping your employees adapt is standard or exceptional, share what your company is doing to safely screen employees and how you are providing for personal leave.

  • Offer social distancing and online options for your product or service. If you have an occupancy permit, consider proactively reducing your capacity by as much as 50 percent or the minimum that would allow safe social distancing. If you work in-home for your customers, consider video capabilities that allow you to diagnose an issue before going into a home.

  • Consider special offerings for self-quarantined, first responders, healthcare and elder care workers. This demonstrates prioritized support for community efforts to help fight the pandemic.

  • Consider programs to help especially hard hit customer segments. If you’re customers include restaurants or movie theaters, for instance, consider programs that support purchasing gift certificates or curbside service. Show your customers you care.