Local small business CEOs are struggling with how to get their businesses back into the marketplace. Several have asked us how they would know when their businesses are ready to reopen after the COVID-19 shutdown and how they can do it safely?

We know that helping a business survive (and keeping your employees safe) in these unpredictable times requires a great deal of strategic planning — but also the ability to be flexible and alter those plans as needed.

One of SCORE’s content writers, Drake Forester, recently wrote a good piece (published in SCORE’s resource library) on this topic. He writes extensively about small business issues and specializes in translating complex legalese into language everyone can understand. His writing has been featured on Fox Small Business, AllBusiness.com, Score.org and many other websites and blogs.

Forester suggested that CEOs consider three questions as they prepare to re-enter the marketplace:

1. When am I ready to reopen?

Some states are in the process of reopening, some are paused, and some — such as Texas — have reinstated restrictions. Deciding if your business is ready to reopen will depend on the developing situation in your state, as well as your responses to the following questions:

  • Is there sufficient consumer demand for my products or services at this time?
  • Will I take in enough revenue to meet expenses while operating at a limited capacity?
  • Do I have the protective equipment my employees need to stay safe (if they are in close contact with the general public or each other)?
  • Does my location allow for social distancing (at least 6 feet between customers and employees)?

For some small business owners, it won’t make financial sense to open their doors to a limited revenue stream. For others, resuming a basic level of operations might be necessary to stay afloat.

2. How can I open my business safely?

Making sure your business can comply with current federal, state and local guidance is the first step toward reopening, but you might need additional safeguards to protect your staff and reduce your liability. If an employee becomes ill with COVID-19 and files a claim with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, for instance, implementing practical safety protocols in advance can show that you made a “good-faith” effort to reduce your staff’s risk of contracting the virus.

You can use the Centers for Disease Control’s decision tree as a broad checklist for creating a safe work environment. Before opening your doors or allowing your employees to return, create a clear COVID-19 policy outlining the specific steps you will take to protect your employees and customers.

Your plan should describe how your business will approach the following issues:

Social distancing: As well as creating more distance between workspaces and staggering employee shifts, employers should think about how to manage common areas — such as hallways, break rooms or bathrooms — to minimize face-to-face encounters. Service-sector businesses should limit seating, and businesses where customers wait in line should clearly mark where customers can stand to maintain 6 feet of distance from each other. Place conspicuous signs, at your entrance and throughout your location that explain your business’s rules for social distancing. When strict physical distancing isn’t possible, put other measures (such as barriers) in place instead.

Hand washing:

Encourage good hand hygiene by providing either a handwashing station or alcohol-based hand wipes (at least 60% alcohol). Make sure all supplies are maintained and available for customers and employees.

Disinfection and ventilation:

Use the CDC’s Cleaning and Disinfection Decision Tool to establish a sanitizing schedule for your place of business. Ensure your building’s ventilation system works properly and all air filters have been recently replaced.

Personal protective equipment (PPE): Although there is currently no federal mandate, some states require employers to provide face masks for workers. Check with your local government to determine the current mask mandate in your area. Even if there is no such mandate, it’s still wise to allow workers to wear masks if they wish to do so.

Keep in mind that you may need to revise your COVID-19 response plan if the level of transmission in your community increases or state directives change. Coordinate with local officials to obtain timely information on how businesses in your area can best respond to the evolving crisis.

What do my employee policies need to be?

The CDC’s Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease provides useful guidelines on implementing employee policies that support your workers while reducing the risk of spreading Covid-19 in the workplace.

Here are just a few of the policies you may need to create or build upon, with input from your employees, to safely reopen your business:

Flexible sick leave

Make it clear that employees should stay home when they are not feeling well. Implementing flexible sick leave policies consistent with public health efforts — and making sure all of your employees are fully aware of these policies — will help you to enforce this safety measure. Your sick leave policy should also include allowances for parents who need to stay home with their children due to school closures, or employees who need to care for sick relatives. If you can’t provide paid sick leave, consider adopting a non-punitive emergency sick leave policy.

Workplace hygiene & safety training

Train your employees on how to reduce virus transmission in the workplace. Stress the importance of washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, wearing cloth face coverings, and disinfecting work stations regularly. Go over your social distancing workplace policies and the rules related to common areas, and place posters encouraging good hygiene in highly-visible places throughout your business.

At-risk worker support systems

Workers who are at higher risk of severe illness should receive accommodations that allow them to work while minimizing their potential exposure to COVID-19. Supportive policies include remote working options and work duties that minimize their contact with the general public.

Final thoughts

There are many more policies you might need to create and implement to protect your customers and your employees, including limiting unnecessary travel, encouraging remote work when possible, reducing face-to-face meetings, and outlining a course of action if one of your employees tests positive for Covid-19.

One of the most important things to think about as you prepare to reopen your business is maintaining the trust of your employees and customers. This means doing all you can to minimize their risk of exposure to the virus at your place of business. Make sure everyone knows what is expected of them from day one — as well as what you are doing to keep them safe.

Lastly, be ready to adapt quickly and meet new challenges as they arise. As we all know, the world looks very different than it did six months ago, and the coming months are likely to bring more changes still.

Dean Swanson is a volunteer Certified SCORE Mentor and former SCORE chapter chairman, district director and regional vice president for the North West Region.