Nonessential Businesses

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While essential businesses (like grocery stores) have been able to continue operations throughout the coronavirus pandemic, many businesses deemed non-essential have been unable to operate for weeks (for example, New York ordered all non-essential businesses closed on March 22, 2020). But after weeks of stay at home orders, the White House released their Opening Up America Again Guidelines (available at, which outlines guidance from the federal government, including criteria states can use to determine whether they’re ready to safely reopen. As a result, states across the country, like Georgia and Alaska, are taking the first steps towards reopening the economy, lifting restrictions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic and allowing certain nonessential businesses to open their doors and get back to work. But just because business owners have the green light to open their doors doesn’t mean they have the green light to go back to business as usual. If you want to protect the health and well-being of yourself, your customers, and your employees, it’s important to proceed with caution—and make sure you’re taking every necessary step to keep people safe. But what, exactly, are those steps? What do you need to do to make sure your small business is a safe environment—and that you’re not putting yourself, your team, or your patrons at unnecessary risk?

Screen your employees…

Until widespread testing is available, going through a health screening or evaluation with your employees before each shift is your best defense in preventing a sick team member from working. There are a few questions you’ll want to ask before your pre-work health screenings, including:
  • Are you currently feeling ill?
  • Are you currently experiencing any symptoms associated with COVID-19, including cough, fever, sore throat, or shortness of breath?
  • Is anyone in your household currently feeling ill or experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19?
  • Have you had contact with anyone who is ill or exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms over the past 14 days?
If you have a touchless thermometer on hand, you may also consider taking your employees’ temperature to confirm they don’t have a fever. If your employee is feeling ill, experiencing any coronavirus-related symptoms, or is living with or has been exposed to someone who is ill or has a confirmed case of COVID-19, send them home with clear guidelines as to when they’re eligible to return to work. (The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms quarantine until seven days have passed since they first started experiencing symptoms; they have been fever-free for three days without the use of fever-reducing medications; and their respiratory symptoms, like coughing or shortness of breath, have improved—so if you have an employee that’s feeling ill, follow the same criteria when approving them to return to work.)

…and, if possible, your clients

While it may not be possible for all business types to screen their clients, customers, or patrons before entering the establishment, if you can screen your clients, you should. For example, if you manage a salon and are only seeing one client per hour, taking a few minutes to screen them before you allow them in the salon (and asking them the same questions you’d ask employees about signs of or exposure to COVID-19) is an extra safety precaution worth taking.

Make masks mandatory

The CDC also recommends wearing masks as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 so make masks mandatory for both employees and patrons. While some employees may already have their own masks, if you’re going to require your team to wear them, as an employer, you should plan to provide a mask for each employee.

Limit the number of people in your business establishment at any time

Depending on what type of business you’re in, you might be used to having a huge number of people in your office or business establishment at once. For example, maybe you have an office of 200+ employees. Or maybe you run a restaurant that typically has an hour-long wait for Friday and Saturday night dinner service. And while you might be tempted to get right back in the swing of things, if you want to keep people safe, it’s important to limit the volume of people in your establishment at any given time. By limiting the number of employees and customers in your business at any time, it’s easier to practice social distancing and make sure people are far enough apart to limit their risk of infection. Limiting your employee and customer count will mean different things for different business, but might include:
  • Staggering employee shifts (for example, having half your team work 8am to 1pm and the other half work 1pm to 6pm—or half your team work on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and the other half work on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday)
  • Encouraging telework for employees who can work from home
  • Limiting the number of clients seen per day (for example, only scheduling one client every hour—and leaving a 15 minute buffer in between clients to reduce overlap)
  • Having a hard limit for the number of people allowed in your establishment at any given time (for example, having a maximum of 25 people inside your establishment at any time—and only allowing new customers in as others leave)
  • Offering alternatives to on-site service (for example, offering curbside pickup)

Continue practicing social distancing

Limiting the number of people in your office, restaurant, barbershop, or other business establishment is the first step—but even if you’re only allowing a few people in at a time, it’s still important to ensure they practice social distancing rules. Again, how you encourage your employees, customers, and patrons to practice social and physical distancing will depend on your business, but some strategies that can be effective include:
  • Marking six-foot intervals on the floor so people know where to stand
  • Staggering workstations (so, for example, have an empty workstation in between two active workstations to create space between employees)
  • Closing communal areas (for example, waiting rooms)

Disinfect often

The coronavirus can live on surfaces for hours—or even days—at a time. That’s why it’s so important to make cleaning and disinfectant a regular (and frequent!) part of your day-to-day operations when you reopen your business. Some cleaning/disinfecting practices you should plan to institute at your business include:
  • Thoroughly disinfecting your entire space prior to reopening, including all surfaces, linens, tools, utensils, cash registers, etc.
  • Placing sanitizing stations at each entrance, including hand sanitizer and/or sanitizing wipes
  • Placing sanitizing stations at high-volume locations within your business (for example, cash registers)
  • Requiring employees to wash their hands often
  • Cleaning and disinfecting throughout the day, including between clients/customers (for example, fully disinfecting gym equipment after a personal training session)
  • Removing any unnecessary high-touch items (for example, magazines in a waiting room)

Continue to follow guidance from public health officials

While these safety precautions can help protect your business during this transition, the truth is, no one knows how reopening the economy is going to impact the spread of the coronavirus. As the situation unfolds, make sure to stay informed of any new guidance from the Department of Health, the CDC, or other public health officials.

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