How to Prepare Your Business for a Coronavirus COVID-19 Outbreak

By Jeanette Coleman, SPHR & SHRM-SCP on Feb 28, 2020
6 min read 1 Comment

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Updated March 19, 2020. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that originated in Wuhan, China last December continues to spread. In the U.S., as of March 19, there have been 10,442 confirmed cases reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention across 49 states and the District of Columbia. And in local Kansas City news, health officials in Kansas have confirmed 22 cases of COVID-19 and 24 in Missouri. 

Given the heightened awareness of this, we are addressing common questions and offering proactive steps that you can take now.

How is COVID-19 Spread? 

The coronavirus is transmitted from one person to another through respiratory droplets and infected surfaces. Respiratory droplets expelled by an infected individual when sneezing or coughing may travel up to six feet and land in the mouths or noses of nearby people or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. While data isn’t available yet as to how long the coronavirus can live on surfaces, based on previous similar diseases, it is estimated one could become infected from touching a contaminated surface up to two days after initial contamination and then touching the eyes, nose, or mouth. 

What are the Symptoms of COVID-19?

The CDC says the main symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Symptoms of COVID-19 appear in as few as two days or as long as 14 days after exposure. The University of California San Francisco (UCSF), detailed the progression of the illness. Initial symptoms are mild and flu-like with a fever. While some recover after the initial symptoms, others go on to develop more severe symptoms.

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How Do I Prepare My Business for a Coronavirus Outbreak?

The CDC is encouraging employers to take action now to help prevent the spread of coronavirus in non-healthcare settings. Employers should plan now for a COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. at varying levels so they can refine their response plan as needed as the illness spreads. According to the CDC, here’s what employers should do now

1. Actively encourage sick employees to stay home.

  • Employees with acute respiratory illness symptoms are recommended to stay home and not come to work until they are fever-free and symptom-free for at least 24 hours (a fever is defined as a body temperature above 100.4° F [37.8° C] or greater using an oral thermometer) without the use of fever-reducing medications or other symptom-altering medicines (e.g. cough suppressants).
  • Ensure your sick leave policies are flexible and employees are aware of these policies.
  • If your business contracts with temp agencies, make your policy clear to them that sick workers stay home and do not report to your workplace.
  • If your business requires doctors’ notes to miss work/return to work, the CDC recommends the policy be lifted for the time being. 
  • Maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for sick children and family members.
  • Employees who are well, but who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor and refer to CDC guidance for how to conduct a risk assessment of their potential exposure.

2. Clean and stock the workplace.

  • Encourage cough and sneeze etiquette and proper handwashing. Ensure adequate supplies of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, soaps, and facial tissues place near touchless receptacles in your workplace.  
  • Routinely wipe down surfaces and provide disinfecting wipes for employees to sanitize their workspace with.

3. Provide guidance to employees who will be traveling.

  • Check the CDC’s Traveler’s Health Notices for the latest recommendations for the country the employee intends to travel to.
  • Advise employees to check themselves for symptoms of acute respiratory illness prior to travel and notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.
  • Ensure employees who become sick while traveling or on temporary assignments understand they should notify their supervisor and promptly call a healthcare provider for advice if needed.
  • If outside the United States, sick employees should follow your company’s policy for obtaining medical care or contact a healthcare provider or overseas medical assistance company to assist them with finding an appropriate healthcare provider in that country. Employees should be advised, U.S. embassies, consulates and military facilities do not have the legal authority, capability, and resources to evacuate or give medicines, vaccines, or medical care to private U.S. citizens overseas.
  • In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., businesses should consider canceling non-essential business travel to additional countries per the CDC. Understand other countries may enforce travel restrictions which could leave your employees stranded in another country.
  • While airports around the country are screening passengers for symptoms of the coronavirus, Kansas City International Airport has no screenings or increased health precautions in place at this time.

4. Prepare for absenteeism.

  • Prepare for increased employee absences, especially should early childhood programs and schools temporarily close due to high levels of sick students. Ways to prepare include cross-training employees, identifying alternate suppliers, prioritizing customers, or even temporarily suspending operations.

5. Create an Infectious Disease Response Plan. 

the coronavirus, self-quarantine, employee pay and the FMLA

What Should I Include in My Business’ Infectious Disease Response Plan?

The number one objective for all employers in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak should be to reduce the spread and lower the impact of COVID-19 in their workplaces while maintaining continuous business operations. Here are some things to consider when creating your business’ Infectious Disease Response Plan:

  1. Identify workplace exposure risks. According to OSHA, exposure risk may be elevated for workers who interact with potentially infected travelers from abroad, including those in healthcare, death care, laboratories, airline operations, border protections, solid waste, and wastewater management and those who travel to areas where the virus is spreading.
  2. Review HR policies. 
    HR policies should align with public health recommendations and existing state and federal workplace laws. 
  3. Determine Whether Social Distancing is Practical.
    State and local health authorities may suggest social distancing should we encounter a COVID-19 outbreak. The practice involves establishing policies for flexible worksites and flexible work hours. If your business provides the ability for employees to work from home to prevent the spread, prepare in advance for the IT needed for multiple employees to work from home.
  4. Create flexible workplace and leave policies.
    Schools may close in the event of an outbreak leaving parents without childcare. How would that level of absenteeism impact your business’ operations?
  5. Identify essential roles, functions, and suppliers.
    Determine how your business would continue to operate if an employee in a key role was out sick for one-to-two weeks.
  6. Communicate your plan to employees.
    Be prepared for employees to ask questions and have fear or anxiety.

What if One of My Employees Shows Signs of COVID-19? 

Separate sick employees.

CDC recommends that employees who appear to have acute respiratory illness symptoms (i.e. cough, shortness of breath) upon arrival to work or become sick during the day should be separated from other employees and be sent home immediately. Sick employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available).

Notify employees of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

If an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19, but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Home isolation.  

According to the CDC, patients with confirmed COVID-19 who don’t need to be hospitalized should remain under home isolation precautions until the risk of secondary transmission to others is thought to be low. The decision to discontinue home isolation precautions should be made on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with healthcare providers and state and local health departments.

We will continue to monitor this situation and provide our clients with updates as they become available.


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