For more than a year, the world has reacted to and adjusted for COVID-19. Now, with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, there is light at the end of the tunnel and individuals and companies can start moving forward and planning for a new normal. As companies in all industries have undoubtedly been affected, employers must remain cognizant of various issues as offices and facilities reopen and employees return to work.

At this critical juncture, it is important to recognize that guidelines and best practices are still changing. Regulatory agencies have issued protocols and guidance, and local, state, and federal governments have passed laws and issued executive orders to guide this process. Identifying and incorporating various safety precautions based on those recommendations may help protect employers and employees alike.

This Best Practices "Guide" is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis; rather, it should be used as a starting point for employers to create or update their policies and practices in conjunction with a thorough analysis of all applicable laws, ordinances, and guidance. This guide covers the following key topics to consider when opening back up or continuing operations:

  • A Revised Understanding of COVID-19: One Year Later
  • Considerations for Reopening
  • Preparing for Reopening a Facility
  • Working with Employees
  • Vaccinations
  • Indemnification Laws/Developments
  • Operating in a Changing Regulatory Environment

Understanding COVID-19: One Year Later

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. At that time, everyone knew much less about the symptoms, transmission, and impact associated with the virus. One year later, while there are still unknowns about COVID-19, there is more developed data on the effects, a more robust understanding of how it spreads, and more options for minimizing its transmission.

Transmission of COVID-19

  • Thought to spread person-to-person and primarily through close contact and close physical proximity
    • When someone with COVID-19 produces "respiratory droplets" (e.g., when coughing, speaking, breathing, sneezing), small droplets form
    • Infections can occur when those respiratory droplets are inhaled by, or deposited on "mucous membranes" (e.g., inside the nose and mouth) of someone else
    • The further the respiratory droplets travel from the person with COVID-19, the less concentrated the droplets are and the less likely someone else will be infected
  • "Airborne transmission" of COVID-19 is possible, but much less common than through close personal contact
  • Contact with contaminated surfaces is not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads
  • People can transmit the virus even if they are not showing any symptoms (i.e., if they are "asymptomatic")

COVID-19 Vaccines

  • Before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves a vaccine or authorizes its emergency use, clinical trials are conducted
  • Studies show that COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing someone from getting the virus, and from getting seriously ill if that person gets COVID-19
  • It usually takes two weeks after vaccination for the body to build immunity against the virus
  • The vaccines may have some side effects including chills or tiredness, but they should go away in a few days
  • Scientists are still learning about the vaccine (e.g., how well it prevents spread, how long it protects people, and how it protects against variants of the virus)
  • Under current guidance (as of March 15, 2021), even someone who has been vaccinated should still wear a mask, practice social distancing, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and frequently wash their hands.

Considerations for Reopening

As restrictions are lifted, employers face the critical task of balancing reopening against reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Understanding that there is no perfect equilibrium with this complex scale, this section outlines various suggestions for employers to consider when opening or reopening the workplace.

Set up a Task Force

  • The task force, if one does not already exist, should consist of a small group of individuals within each company location, including representatives from all work shifts, who will help prepare a Preparedness and Response Plan. In some states, such a plan is required by executive order or state law as a condition of operation. As this list is constantly changing, we recommend reviewing current state law at the time the employer is considering reopening and regularly reviewing applicable law throughout the reopening process.
  • Individuals on the task force should assume specific roles to ensure the plan is being properly executed. Examples of such roles include:
    • Team Lead: overall responsibility for ensuring the plan is being executed and followed by employees; coordinate with other team leads of other offices.
      • The team lead, along with company executives, should determine the proper phase at which the company should reopen. (See below)
    • Logistics Coordinator: oversee and direct employee and third-party arrivals/departures and visitor sign-ins; identify specific social distancing options for company adoption.
    • Facilities Coordinator: oversee and direct the update and maintenance of safety measures to the physical building, including ventilation modifications and updates, air filter changes, separation of workspaces, installation of physical barriers, etc.
    • Disinfection and Materials Coordinator: oversee and direct the creation and monitoring of housekeeping schedules and activities, including the cleaning of common areas requiring sanitation and disinfection; ensure necessary supplies and materials are properly stocked and ordered (e.g., hand sanitizer dispensers, etc.).
    • Task Force Liaison: works with employees, management, and task force to solicit feedback and ensure compliance with the plan.
    • Training/Update Coordinator: oversee and direct the development of training programs for employees and others for compliance with the plan; review and report on updates to regulatory requirements and guidance; and propose updates and modifications to the plan, as necessary.
  • The task force, or smaller subsets of the task force, should meet periodically to discuss updates and provide feedback.

Develop a Plan for Opening or Reopening

  • Create a Preparedness and Response Plan to help guide protective actions against COVID-19. The plan should consider such issues as:
    • Where, how, and to what sources of COVID-19 might employees be exposed?
    • Which employees should be brought back to work on-site, and when?
    • Controls to address nonoccupational risk factors at home and in the community.
    • Contingency plans that consider:
      • Increased employee absence — Need to downsize operations or transition to remote services
      • Options for conducting essential operations with a reduced workforce
      • Interrupted supply chains or delayed deliveries
    • Changes to the workplace that should be practically implemented, including:
      • Installing additional hand sanitizer dispensers
      • More frequently cleaning often-touched surfaces and common areas
      • Managing shift changes — Staggering meal and rest breaks to thoroughly disinfect common areas
      • Rearranging office space if possible to promote social distancing
      • Considering modifications of production groups to create "pods" to address possible outbreaks
      • Placing additional signage around building to remind employees of preventative measures (including regular and frequent hand-washing)
      • Temporarily closing facilities or areas with confirmed COVID-19 cases for deep cleaning and disinfection
      • Limiting participants at in-person meetings
      • Enforcing proper social distancing and wearing of face coverings
      • Designating isolation areas to separate employees suspected of having COVID-19
      • Limiting shared supplies and tools to reduce potential exposure

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