With almost half of the United States now fully vaccinated, and over half of adults having received at least one dose, states are lifting COVID-19 crisis health and safety restrictions at a rapid pace. Social and physical distancing, forced business shutdowns, heightened safety precautions, mask mandates, and capacity restrictions are quickly being abandoned as states, like California, determine that their population is approaching herd immunity and federal guidance promotes cautious optimism. While before small business owners were challenged with very real threats to business continuity with disrupted supply chains and plummeting demand, business leaders are now faced with the challenge of rapidly ramping up business operations and possibly transitioning aware from telework and remote work.
This presents quite a radical shift from the reality that small business owners have lived through since March of 2020. After transforming their business, both in the digital and physical worlds, to comply with CDC, OSHA, federal, local, and whatever other regulations were thrown at them, they have to make critical decisions about how to respond to a normalizing world. This leaves small businesses with the question “How can I best navigate the transition to normalcy?”
We’ve put together our best advice for small business owners as they navigate through the next period of the pandemic: the post-pandemic and post-COVID return to normalcy.
Go straight to the source for the latest rules and guidelines
The environment surrounding guidelines and regulations for businesses as it relates to COVID-19 precautions is changing very quickly. You’ll probably hear a different thing from your neighbors, from your colleagues, from your business partners, from your customers, even from the local news!! Getting your facts wrong could spell disaster for your business, whether that comes in the form of losing the trust of your customers or receiving heavy fines or penalties from local authorities. The best way to ensure that you have the most up-to-date information is to go straight to the official sources: the CDC, OSHA, the federal government, and your local and city governments.
There are plenty of resources out there that will keep you abreast of the latest when it comes to pandemic restriction easing:
- Your Local or State Government: The best place to start would be your local and state government website pages dedicated to COVID-19 news. For example, Pennsylvania’s state website has a dedicated page that explicates resources and information related to COVID-19 restrictions. They have useful FAQs that small business owners can reference to understand their local authority’s response to the current coronavirus crisis. Additionally, cities and counties like Philadelphia and Allegheny county, respectively, have their own pages with resources and guidelines that businesses can reference to understand which rules apply to them.
- Federal Government Agencies: OSHA, the CDC, and the White House all have information pertinent to small business owners that local and state governments use to develop their guidelines. We suggest using these resources to double-check seemingly out-of-date guidelines or clear up any confusion you get from other official sources.
- The US Chamber of Commerce: The US Chamber of Commerce has two excellent guides specifically for small businesses concerning precautions and resources for adapting to the new normal. The US Chamber of Commerce’s state-by-state reopening guide and Digital Resources Center provide detailed information valuable to small business owners.
- Interactive Dashboards and Infographics: Media organizations like the New York Times have produced extremely useful dashboards and infographics that can help small business owners get up to speed quickly on the status of their state’s COVID-19 response. These infographics are quite detailed, but it’s useful to double-check the more official sources if you’re looking for comprehensive information.
Going straight to the source for information on COVID-19 precautions will ensure three things:
- First, you’ll make sure that you’re following all the necessary guidelines required by local authorities
- Second, you’re reopening strategy will be accurate to the guidelines that you will have to be following
- Third, you’ll keep the trust of your employees, customers, and business partners by showing them you care for their health and safety
Solicit feedback from your employees, your customers, and your business partners
Even if restrictions have been totally lifted it’s important as a business leader to ensure that all stakeholders in your business are aligned on how your business operations should evolve. This means soliciting constant formal and informal feedback from both your employees and your customers, as you are able and as is appropriate. Understanding what people are comfortable with and what would produce a safe and inclusive work and customer environment will ensure that your business can smoothly transition to normalcy. Equally as important is engaging with your suppliers, vendors, and business partners to revisit agreements that may have anticipated a longer duration of restricted business.
Getting feedback can be done in many ways. It could be a formal survey sent out to your customers or employees, it could be round table discussions with your team, formal interviews with customers and partners, or even just informal chats. A bar and restaurant owner in Pennsylvania that we spoke with said “I make a point to ask a few customers every few hours how they’re feeling about new government guidelines around COVID. It helps me keep a pulse on the general feelings my customers have on what we’re doing at the restaurant.”
As an example, In Michigan, where COVID restrictions will be totally lifted by Tuesday, June 22nd, business owners are taking the same approach. Michigan’s capacity limits (both indoor and outdoor) will be lifted, and the broad mask mandate lifted regardless of vaccination status, to name a few. Despite this, business owners like Bob Shenefelt, as interviewed by “Click on Detroit”, are taking a measured approach to return to the office. While they’ve strictly held to the guidelines provided by Michigan and the CDC, they’re also listening to their employees to determine how to proceed with masking requirements and other precautions.
In another example, a report from “The Signal” out of Santa Clarita Valley, California showed that business owners are taking the rapid lifting of restrictions (California lifted social distancing and capacity limits drastically on June 15th) with a mixed response. A bar owner reported that she expected there to be many bumps along the road as they ramped up their operations but was very happy to be back to fully open service so she could start recovering from the year of restricted business. Some businesses are fully accepting the guidelines of no more mask mandates, but others are still requiring that customers and employees stay masked while indoors regardless of vaccination status. For example, at City Hall and other Santa Clarita facilities, most people are still masked up. But down the street at a town center, many people were very happy to be able to be unmasked due to their vaccination status. In each of these cases, business owners are making sure to have open communication with their employees and customers which informs how they respond to changing guidelines.
Prepare for the worst with a Plan B
While case counts and infection rates are trending down and vaccination rates and rapidly rising, there is still a risk of new COVID-19 outbreaks emerging and plunging our society back into remission and shutdown. Dangerous variants of the COVID-19 virus are rapidly spreading across the developed world, including within the United States. Especially for those who are unvaccinated, these variants are incredibly dangerous. The “Delta” variant is understood to be much more transmissible and capable of causing more severe cases of COVID-19 – federal officials like Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), believe that it could be a potential source of a new widespread outbreak of the coronavirus.
Understanding this, savvy small business owners will make sure that they’re well prepared for the possibility of a new outbreak that could return their operations to physical distancing, shutdowns, capacity restrictions, and precautions. Make sure you have access to emergency funds in the form of a low-interest line of credit or emergency cash fund in case revenues are affected and cash flow disrupted, that you have a pulse on how to obtain PPE and cleaning supplies should you need to replenish your supply, and that you have contingency plans and communications ready in case you need to inform your customers and employees of another change to your operating business model.