When and how to reopen businesses post the COVID-19 pandemic has been a hot and controversial topic. Optimism is spreading across the U.S. as the death tolls decrease and the release of vaccinations increase. However, returning to work after the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t an easy decision and re-opening too soon has proven to be problematic. Across Europe, dread is setting in with another wave of infection that is closing schools and cafes and bringing new lockdowns.
The pandemic’s diverging paths on the two continents can be linked in part to the much more successful vaccine rollout in the U.S. and the spread of more contagious variants in Europe. Health experts in the U.S., though, say what’s happening in Europe should serve as a warning against ignoring social distancing or dropping other safeguards too early.
“Each of these countries has had extreme lows like we are having now, and each took an upward trend after they disregarded known mitigation strategies,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “They simply took their eye off the ball.”
Traveling back to the U.S., the trends are far more encouraging. Deaths per day have plunged to an average of just under 1,300, down from a high of about 3,400 two months ago. New cases are running at about 55,000 per day on average after peaking at more than a quarter-million per day in early January.
However, according to APNews.com, recipients of the vaccination are still worried. Yusuf Lamont, who got his second dose said, “It’s not a time to just start whipping masks off and dancing around.”
“There’s a false sense of security with numbers going down and people getting vaccinated. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s safe to go do whatever.’ No. It’s a big country. There’s 330 million people,” he said.
As we learned from the current status in Europe and the cautions of the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), reopening too early comes with many risks. Let’s take a closer look:
Risk: Employees may contract the virus from or spread it to their coworkers.
The most obvious risk of returning to work after COVID-19 is an outbreak of the virus in your workplace. Spreading a potentially deadly virus through the office would be bad enough, but employees who contract the coronavirus at work could then infect family, friends and other members of the community.
Risk: Employees may feel anxious about returning to work too quickly.
Employees may be nervous about heading back to the office for a number of reasons. Perhaps they or one of their family members have a health condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus. If you live in an area with an increasing number of coronavirus cases, they might feel safer self-isolating at home. They could also fear that they are an asymptomatic carrier who could spread the virus to more vulnerable coworkers.
Risk: Not having a COVID-19 workplace health and safety plan in place.
Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace. Therefore, it is imperative that employers develop a comprehensive reopening strategy that covers topics including ensuring the building is ready for occupancy, employee testing, hazard controls to reduce transmission, educating employees and supervisors about steps they can take to protect themselves at work, etc. A full list can be found on the CDC’s website here.
Before deciding to re-open employers should consider these risks, as well as the responsibilities they have to mitigate these risks, when deciding when the right time is to bring employees back to the workplace.