As Americans begin to climb out of COVID-19 lockdown, physical workspaces may not appear all that different, at least on the outside. But from factories to office buildings to retail stores to bars and restaurants, experts say employers need to impose aggressive guidelines—and install new hardware—that could radically reshape life for everyone involved.
For starters, workplaces may need hand-hygiene stations at every entrance, elevator, conference room, and lounge. Employees will likely be encouraged to work from home if they can for the indefinite future. All dining areas in restaurants and cafeterias will face pressure—or be required—to increase the distance between tables and decrease the number of people per top. Companies will move aggressively to test as many employees as possible, employers will implement staggered shift schedules where possible, and workers without access to sick leave and health care will have new ammunition to demand them.
It almost goes without saying that everyone should be using face coverings, that virtual conference meetings should take the place of in-person meetings where they can, and that business travel should be severely limited.
But as conservative governors in states like Georgia move to reopen public spaces—despite health experts’ fears that coronavirus curves have not come close enough to flattening—it’s clear that some workplaces will be far better prepared than others.
“It’s going to be many months of trial-and-error,” said Yoel Har-Even, director of the international division and resource development at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. “Workplaces need to understand that there will be peaks and valleys to this.”
Har-Even emphasized the need for free protective gear for everyone—employees and customers—at all businesses, as well as temperature checks and a wealth of access to hand sanitizer.
According to the Wall Street Journal, several companies—including Amazon and General Motors—are exploring the feasibility of testing all employees for COVID-19 before allowing them to return to work in-person. But American diagnostic tests—of which there still aren’t enough for all the health-care workers and sick patients—aren’t all that reliable, and the use of them for work raises significant questions about privacy.
Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, pointed out that current lack of widespread testing also sharpens systematic disparities in access to health care. For instance, those who are undocumented or economically disadvantaged—many of whom work at factories across the nation—may find themselves even more marginalized amid evolving best practices.
“Having measures in place so that people can stay home—and aren’t penalized—is going to be very important,” said Rupp.
Though many American employers already provide flu shots, diagnostic testing for the coronavirus is more invasive and costly, and antibody—or serology—tests come with their own problems, including questionable effectiveness in detecting immunity.
But as Dr. Brittany Kmush, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who specializes in epidemiology, global health, and infectious diseases, noted to The Daily Beast, the cost for tests isn’t a one-off expense.
“You can’t just test people with this virus once,” said Kmush. “You’d have to be able to keep testing people—and to make sure you protect the people who do test positive and get them the care they need.”
Har-Even suggested that big companies may need health-care workers onsite to provide infection control—the same way that big construction companies employ specialists in hazardous materials.
Meanwhile, the cost of failure here for any business is high, according to Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former chair and CEO of Medtronic. He cited the outbreaks at Smithfield Foods’ meat processing plants in Cudahy, Wisconsin and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the latter of which is now one of the largest COVID-19 hotspots in the country with at least 644 confirmed cases.
“Factories must look at new ways of laying out their production lines, adding plexiglass barriers, of testing people when they come into the factory,” said George.
Fiat Chrysler’s plants in the U.S. plan to require workers to fill out a detailed health questionnaire two hours before work each day, reported The Kokomo Tribune. The company has said it plans to use the break in production to redesign work stations for social distancing and to expand cleaning protocols at all manufacturing locations.
“I think that companies have realized the disruption that comes from an uncontrolled outbreak,” said Rupp. “Having folks play by these rules is in their own self-interest.”
According to a report out of MIT, because of the pandemic shutdown, approximately 34 percent of American workers who previously commuted to offices were logging on from their homes by the first week of April. Experts surveyed by The Daily Beast suggested that those who can keep working from home should plan to do so for the foreseeable future, especially if it means avoiding potentially treacherous commutes on public transportation like in New York City.
But for those who do return, said George: “You’re going to have to move desks six feet away.”
At least one commercial real estate services firm recently tested a design concept called “Six Feet Office,” which shows foot traffic routing to keep workers far enough apart as they move around the office. And according to Bloomberg News and Vox, businesses may feel little choice but to experiment with more automatic doors, voice-recognition software in high-traffic surfaces like elevators, plexiglass barriers, more space between desks, more frequent cleaning policies, newer ventilation systems—which are already in development by the International Facility Management Association—and even UV lights to disinfect the spaces overnight. Open-plan offices could veer back to cubicles.
As Bloomberg reported, in Shanghai, at Unilever, employees reserve spaced out free seats on a shuttle bus using a chat group, and sit on alternating sides. The same kind of QR codes controversially being used to track citizens’ COVID-19 status in Chinese cities like Beijing have been used by Unilever to provide a health status report the company can read before granting access to the campus for the day. Temperatures are monitored, hand sanitizer is used liberally, employees wear masks, take the stairs, and only sit one person per four-seat table in the cafeteria.
But it’s not all about technological developments, according to Rupp, who noted that many of the best practices for the modern American workplace after lockdown are “things we should have done in the past anyway.” Things like having ready access to hand hygiene and to low-level disinfectants for people sharing a desk or telephones.
“Those make common sense even without a pandemic,” said Rupp, adding that the same goes for the previously pervasive principle that those with only mild allergies or colds should try to “push through it” and “tough it out,” coming into the office anyway.
“Those days are gone,” said Rupp. “If you have an illness, we’d rather you be at home getting better than at work spreading germs.”
In Georgia on Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp said some restaurants and bars would be allowed to open as soon as next week. But the timeline for reopening most restaurants and bars remains far more uncertain in much of the country. Dr. Rupp, of the University of Nebraska, suggested maximum capacities already used for fire safety in buildings might be a useful blueprint for creating a kind of “COVID code” for workspaces, restaurants, retail establishments, and more.
As famous Momofuku restaurateur, author, and television personality David Chang tweeted: “Restaurants need to plan for what 50 percent capacity dining-in looks like.”
“We are way past due for an updated national protocol for food safety in a COVID-19 world. Restaurant workers need to know what PPE to use,” he added. “These are things we can plan for now.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco restaurateur himself, told residents to expect a gradual—or rolling, soft—reopening of establishments. He said temperature checks could be implemented on both employees and diners, that waiters may be wearing gloves, menus may be disposable, tables further apart, and there may be fewer patrons at each table, period.
As Eater reported, in March, restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten reopened his businesses in Shanghai and Guangzhou. He noted the government imposed a slew of restrictions: temperature checks for chefs and customers, no tables larger than four patrons, at least six feet between each table, and all payments touch-free through an app on their phones. But he also described a strange quiet in restaurants and said he hoped the U.S. would be less draconian in its application of public health measures for dining establishments.
A Nebraska mall that controversially announced plans for a soft reopening this coming Thursday said it planned to implement temperature checks and social distancing regulations for shoppers.
In a letter to store owners and shoppers, Nebraska Crossing Outlet Mall said it bought 100 non-contact, instant read thermometers—one for each store—so they could take the temperature of every employee before work and possibly every shopper.
Plastic shields have been installed at every point of sale, every shopper is being “encouraged” to wear a mask and gloves, hand sanitizer dispensers and wipes have been installed throughout the mall, and busy areas will be misted with “electrostatic disinfectant” throughout the day.
Mall owner Rod Yates suggested the opening could be a chance for national retailers to “test out best practices for eventually reopening across the country,” as he told Nebraska’s NET News.
Employees were not enthused. “None of us signed up to be guinea pigs,” one store manager told The Omaha World-Herald.
Over the weekend, two farmers’ markets in Seattle reopened, requesting that every shopper take an oath of 14 steps, including not touching products, staying home if they feel sick, designating one shopper per household, wearing a mask, and offering a wave and a smile at farmers rather than stopping for a long chat. The layout of the market was also changed to increase space between booths, and shoppers were encouraged to preorder and use drive-through.
Some powerful elected officials seem intent on moving more quickly than others: Georgia’s Gov. Kemp announced that fitness centers—among other businesses—in the state may be reopened even sooner than restaurants, by later this week. But Kevin Keith, chief brand officer for fitness studio chain OrangeTheory, told The Daily Beast that the company’s gyms in 26 countries will “change permanently.”
Studios will have “dramatically reduced” capacity, classes will be shortened from an hour to 45 minutes to allow staff to clean everything in between, staff will most likely wear masks, and members won’t be allowed to congregate in lobbies for a catch-up before and after classes.
Regardless of the industry—and even when governors and other state officials are extremely careful—the potential for setbacks is inescapable. As Har-Even put it, “It’s going to be a rollercoaster.”
—Rachel Olding contributed reporting to this story.