As states across the country lift shelter-in-place restrictions, business owners are navigating the tricky task of reopening their operations.

But while the pandemic brought unprecedented challenges to the nation’s business landscape, there’s actually a blueprint for a safety-first, and solvency-minded, reopening. To do that, businesses must intimately understand workers’ and customers’ safety concerns; follow state and public health guidelines; and adopt industry-wide best practices, like technology that helps employees keep a social distance, experts told Jeanette Mulvey, content director for CO— during the first episode of CO— Blueprint, a new video series dedicated to providing small businesses with the ideas and strategies they need to reopen their businesses successfully.

Panelists for the event included Michelle Sourie Robinson, president and CEO of Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council (Detroit, Mich.); Alan Thayer, founder of Oregon-based law firm, Innovative Law Group (Eugene, Ore.); and Maddie Watkins, founder of 202Strong (Washington, D.C.), a locally owned and operated gym. The three unpacked the new business environment, offering up strategies designed to ease the return to a new normalcy and drive success.

Follow local and public health authority reopening guidelines

Businesses should first consult — and then follow — directives from state, local and national public health authorities, like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for concrete and comprehensive reopening guidelines to avoid legal and liability issues, Thayer said.

Understanding public health authority guidelines is key to averting liability-related reopening issues, Thayer said. “Don’t go by TV news reports — those are just short snapshots,” he said.

By making sure “you took reasonable steps to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus [to workers and customers],” businesses can help protect themselves from potential lawsuits, for one, Thayer said.

Tap industry specific resources for best practices

Industry-specific trade associations are also offering tailored, sector-specific guidance — from manufacturing to retail, restaurants and hospitality — with step-by-step tips on tasks like sanitizing spaces and wiping down equipment, said Sourie Robinson.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and The National Safety Council “also have [reopening] playbooks for businesses,” Thayer said.

The biggest thing is to recognize that we’re not going back to normal.

Maddie Watkins, founder, 202Strong

Consider a compliant-minded ‘five-point plan’

Thayer outlined a five-point reopening plan for businesses:

  • Know the state, local, federal and industry-specific reopening guidelines and standards;
  • Develop your own protocols and get them down in writing;
  • Communicate those protocols to customers, employers and vendors through training and signage;
  • Implement those protocols, which often requires physically restructuring your business with features like plexiglass barriers; and
  • Enforce your rules.

“Then businesses should be in much better shape to be open, stay open and avoid lawsuits,” Thayer said.

Keep on pivoting to meet the needs of the new normal

With her Washington, D.C.-based gym shuttered, 202Strong’s Maddy Watkins pivoted to online classes. She’s now pivoting again as the business reopens, to meet the health needs and concerns of workers and gym members. Now operating with reduced occupancy restrictions, “The biggest thing is to recognize that we’re not going back to normal,” Watkins said.

To that end, 202Strong is introducing new protocols whereby gym members must now book classes ahead of time; all coaches will be wearing masks; the gym floor will be marked by “stations” that are six-feet apart; no equipment will be shared; and “the gym will be deep cleaned and sanitized,” Watkins said. The idea is to “build trust with our members.”

Indeed, businesses should avail themselves of new technology designed specifically for COVID-19 related best practices, like bracelets that ensure workers remain six feet apart, Sourie Robinson said.

Customer and employee communication: Share safety-first guidelines directly and empathically

The pandemic’s impact on American consumers and workers is varied, “and they have many different opinions” on what safety means, Sourie Robinson said. Businesses must balance accommodating employee and consumer preferences without compromising their safety, “as we want to have customers who think like me, and ones who don’t — so you have to make sure they feel comfortable in your establishment,” she said.

To that end, businesses should “overcommunicate” their safety rules on their websites, before customers ever reach the premises, and reiterate that message when they walk in with kindness, she said. For example: “’We ask that you wear a mask because we want to protect you,’” Sourie Robinson said.

CO— Blueprint is sponsored by Chase for Business (presenting sponsor), ADP, MetLife, FedEx and Square. You can register for next week’s CO— Blueprint, which will focus on re-engaging with your customers, here.

Published June 10, 2020