Customer & Employee Safety: COVID-19 and Your Small Business

The Blueprint speaks with Dr. Scott Deitchman, a physician who served for 30 years at the CDC, to learn how businesses can prepare for and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Hands cradling a small globe that’s wearing a face mask with the word “coronavirus”
Hands cradling a small globe that’s wearing a face mask with the word “coronavirus”

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With the continued spread of COVID-19, many businesses have questions about how best to ensure the health and safety of their customers and employees. To provide some answers, The Blueprint turned to Dr. Scott Deitchman, a physician who served for 30 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, he is a Senior Visiting Scholar and Adjunct Associate Professor at the National Center for Disaster Medicine and Public Health.

Please note: This Q&A is for educational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice or personal health advice. For medical advice or treatment please seek a local health care provider.

Coronavirus Business Preparedness Q&A with Dr. Scott Deitchman MD, MPH

Q: Should all businesses be monitoring news of COVID-19, or is it only of concern to businesses in the affected geographic areas?

Dr. Deitchman: It’s a good idea to be monitoring the situation. Right now, most people in the U.S. are unlikely to be exposed to the coronavirus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (abbreviated COVID-19). But the situation is evolving rapidly, there are communities in the US where disease spread is occurring, and it’s very possible that wider spread will occur.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization post information on what’s happening nationally and internationally, but for information closer to home it’s best to follow your state health department and local health department. All these health organizations have websites.

Sources and further information: Risk Assessment and Recommendations for an Infectious Disease Outbreak Response Plan

Q: Are certain types of businesses or particular industries more at risk? What factors determine that?

Dr. Deitchman: Most jobs probably don’t put workers at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19. However, some workers’ jobs involve exposure, or possible exposure, to infectious people (including travelers who contracted the disease abroad). Health care workers, including EMS, medical transport workers, health care providers, laboratory personnel, and support staff are in that category.

Others with a possible increased exposure risk include coroners, medical examiners, and funeral staff who work with deceased persons who were infected; workers involved in airline operations; workers involved in waste management; and workers whose jobs require travel to areas where COVID-19 is spreading.

Source and further information: Workers Who May Have Exposure Risk

Q: How does COVID-19 spread?

Dr. Deitchman: Because COVID-19 is a new disease, we’re still learning how it spreads. Right now, we think the virus that causes COVID-19 mainly spreads from person to person. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they produce tiny droplets containing the virus. These droplets can spread through the air and infect people who are within about 6 feet distance.

Those nearby people can possibly inhale droplets into their lungs, or the droplets can land in their mouths or noses. It’s also possible that people can pick up the virus by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it, and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This is why we tell people to wash their hands frequently and avoid touching their face.

Source and further information: How COVID-19 Spreads

Q: How can businesses know if employees are sick with COVID-19, as opposed to say just the common cold?

Dr. Deitchman: People sick with COVID-19 have many of the same symptoms as other respiratory illnesses including colds and influenza (“the flu”). So, businesses really can’t know what illness the employee has unless the patient gets tested for COVID-19. A doctor or other health care worker has to collect nose and throat swabs and sometimes a sample of coughed sputum (“phlegm”) and send that material to a laboratory. Even if a worker goes to a doctor’s office, they won’t have an answer right away.

This is why CDC recommends that businesses take action based on the employee’s symptoms and not wait for a confirmed diagnosis. If an employee has symptoms of respiratory illness – cough, fever, muscle aches, shortness of breath – they should stay home. The employee should not come to work until they don’t have a fever or other symptoms for at least 24 hours.

That means their temperature is less than 100.4° F using an oral thermometer, and they aren’t taking medicines that would hide the fever (like Tylenol or ibuprofen) or symptoms (like cough medicine).

Sources and further information: Recommendations for an Infectious Disease Outbreak Response Plan, Specimen Type and Priority and Symptoms

Q: Should employers require a doctor’s note before letting employees take sick leave?

Dr. Deitchman: It’s best if employers don’t require a doctor’s note. Doctors’ offices and other health care facilities may be very busy, and they may not be able to provide notes right away. Also, if they are that busy, it’s best to let them focus on patients who need medical care and not distract them with someone who’s only there for a note.

Source and further information: Actively encourage sick employees to stay home

Q: What precautions should businesses take to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their workplaces and places of business?

Dr. Deitchman: Businesses can take several precautions. Actively encourage sick employees to stay home, and have sick leave policies that can accommodate their sick leave. Send any sick employees home. Encourage hand hygiene — washing with soap and water and using alcohol-based hand sanitizers – and provide tissues and waste receptacles that don’t require touching.

Routinely clean frequently touched surfaces such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs using appropriate cleaning agents, and give employees disposable wipes so they can wipe down those surfaces before each use. Tell your employees not to take business travel if they have symptoms of respiratory illness, and check travel advisories for international destinations. Lastly, encourage any employees who have not yet gotten an influenza vaccination (“flu shot”) to get one. Flu is still with us, too.

Source and further information: Recommended strategies for employers to use now

Q: What are the best sources of information for employers to stay up-to-date on developing COVID-19 news?

Dr. Deitchman: For information about what’s going on in your community and any local guidance, look to your state and local health departments. For business-specific guidance, updates on the spread of COVID-19, and to keep up with what we are learning about the new coronavirus and COVID-19, there’s a wealth of information on the web sites of both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. CDC has more information on the situation in the United States, while WHO has a more international focus.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has guidance, too, and they explain how protecting workers against COVID-19 relates to certain OSHA requirements.

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