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California Guidelines for Safe Reopening During Covid-19

Gusto Editors  
California skyline in the late afternoon

The Golden State was hard-hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic. In response, Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay at home order on March 2020 to help control the spread, which meant that non-essential businesses were obligated to shut their doors and many transitioned to a work-from-home model. 

As the infection rate begins to slow, state officials are hoping to reopen businesses while preserving public health and personal safety. What does that mean for employers planning to reopen their doors? Read on to find out.

When will businesses reopen in California?

It’s complicated. California’s size and diverse mix of urban, suburban, and rural areas means that some regions may reopen sooner than others, and not every business type will be able to open right away. 

To define and track key changes during the novel coronavirus pandemic, California operates a “Resilience Roadmap” tool which details the state’s progress towards a full reopening. However, there are a couple of considerations to keep in mind—namely, these state guidelines are issued in addition to federal directives, and phases within California may differ on the local or county level, depending on each region’s unique situation.

As of June 3, 2020, California is in phase two; visit the Resilience Roadmap for the most up-to-date information about California’s reopening schedule, and get information on your county here.

What are California’s reopening phases?

Again, it’s complicated; there are national guidelines (issued by the CDC) and state-specific guidelines (issued by California Governor Newsom) that must be met as the state progresses toward reopening.

National Guidelines 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued national guidelines for reopening businesses. These recommend when and how employees can return to the office, including the observance of social distancing guidelines, limits on non-essential travel, and special accommodations for at-risk populations.

California Guidelines 

In addition to the CDC’s guidelines, California will adhere to state-specific protocols. Governor Newsom’s statewide plan will permit  businesses to reopen their doors using six key indicators as a guide  for modifying the stay-at-home order. Once those conditions are satisfied—and the California stay-at-home order has been lifted—the state will enact four phases for reopening businesses. These phases are:

Phase one

Within this phase, businesses commit to safer work environments for essential employees by providing additional protective equipment, protective measures, and enhanced testing and contact tracing.

What this means for employers:

  • Essential business owners must have plans to limit crowds inside establishments.
  • Employers must provide PPE such as gloves and masks.
  • A safety net for essential workers must be established and maintained.

Phase two

Phase two allows lower-risk workplaces, such as small office spaces and certain retail outlets, to reopen. At a later point in this phase, offices, schools, shopping malls, and the in-house dining portions of restaurants will be allowed to reopen with proper modifications.

What this means for employers:

  • Sick leave or work-from-home plans must be established and offered to employees who don’t feel well.
  • Social distancing must be observed, and face masks must be worn in all workplaces by employees and customers.
  • Working from home should continue to be encouraged whenever possible.

Phase three

Phase three allows for higher-risk businesses such as gyms, salons, and in-person religious services to reopen. The state has yet to share guidelines for business and individual actions during this phase.

Phase four

Phase four details the steps that concert halls, convention centers, and sports venues with live crowds must take to reopen. The state has yet to share guidelines for business and individual actions during this phase.

What must California businesses do before reopening?

Before reopening, all businesses must meet five requirements to demonstrate that they are working to limit the spread of COVID-19:

  1. Businesses must perform detailed risk assessments and implement site-specific protection plans.
  2. Employees must be trained on how to limit the spread of COVID-19, including self-monitoring for symptoms and staying home if they are exhibiting symptoms.
  3. Businesses must implement individual control measures and screenings.
  4. Disinfecting protocols must be in place.
  5. Physical distancing guidelines must be observed.

In addition to the five requirements listed above, the state has issued industry-specific guidelines that cover more than a dozen separate industries, including deliveries, retail, warehouses, manufacturing, and office spaces. Those businesses must complete an industry-specific checklist  and post this checklist in a conspicuous area, where employees and customers can see it. For more information, visit the state of California’s statewide industry guidance website.

Best practices for reopening businesses in California

Reopening businesses in the Golden State is only one step toward economic recovery in California. Your organization will have to prepare for, and adapt to, changing ways of conducting business; consider these best practices as you prepare to reopen.

Regional COVID-19 laws 

California’s reopening plan allows each county to delay their transition into a new reopening phase if they determine their local conditions are not on pace with the statewide determination. As you plan your reopening, keep in mind that you may move at a faster or slower pace than your employees in another county.

Many clients and business partners may not be ready to go when you are, and businesses with multiple locations may implement a staggered approach to reopening . 

Retooling your budget 

How much money you’re spending, and how you’re spending it, may have to change in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Your budget will have to adjust as payments that were previously frozen or delayed, such as loan installation or mortgage payments, come due. Any new debt taken on during the shutdown period will need to be accounted for. Additionally, loans with spending criteria, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), will need to be carefully spent and monitored to meet the conditions laid out for the funds.

If you choose to reopen your place of business, keep in mind there will be costs involved with enforcing the new measures outlined by state and federal guidelines. You will need to purchase PPE and hand sanitizer for your employees, and you may have to purchase cleaning equipment or hire a service to disinfect your facility on a regular basis. If your workplace requires partitions to enforce physical distancing, that cost should be included in your budget, as well.

If you choose to postpone reopening, you may need to retool your budget to accommodate the extra costs associated with work-from-home arrangements. For example, In California, employers are required to reimburse employees for the reasonable cost of their cell phone bills—if the employees are required to use their personal phones for business purposes. This reimbursement requirement also applies to other personal expenses incurred during work such as internet service and equipment necessary for work. Many businesses in California have started  budgeting for these.

Workplace safety measures

Your newly-reopened workplace will look different than it did before the pandemic hit. It’s likely that not all employees will return at once. Cleaning and disinfecting will become a regular part of your office’s daily routine, or even an hourly routine. Simple perks like the coffee machine or water cooler may need to be replaced with pre-packaged, single serve offerings. You will also need to establish visitor policies to best control who comes in and out of your space. A thorough pandemic preparedness plan can combine all these measures into one overarching safety strategy.

Your pandemic preparedness plan may include reopening your business with a reduced workforce, staggered shifts, or a new office setup intended to maintain space between people present in your workplace or retail space. With fewer people present, maintaining social distance can be easier, and you can reduce the number of unknowing COVID-19 carriers in your space while minimally impacting your employees’ workflow. These measures may seem unusual, but they help to keep your employees and customers safe. 

Revisit your business strategy and model

Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, many businesses began quickly adjusting their strategies to address emerging consumer needs and adapt to the new reality. In the restaurant industry, for example, many business owners have pivoted toward takeout and delivery along with grocery and meal-kit sales. In doing so, restaurant owners have kept their products flowing while expanding their offerings to meet new customer demands. 

When you reopen your California business, take a cue from restaurants: Analyze how your business may need to alter its longtime services to address public health and reorient your resources toward providing new offerings your customers may now need.

If your work has previously included some amount of travel and in-person meetings, your business may face new challenges in achieving the goals these former practices sought to achieve. If your business is built entirely on in-person interactions, reopening may portend even more challenges.

Encourage distancing with revised HR policies

While reopening your California business, you should reshape your work-from-home policies to address the unique challenges that COVID-19 transmission routes pose. Offer more sick time so that people experiencing symptoms don’t feel pressured to come to work, or follow the lead of several companies that have implemented policies allowing employees to work from home as often as they want, even after the pandemic passes. 

In California, businesses with 500 or more employees must have a sick leave policy in place, a provision passed due to COVID-19. This is in addition to the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act, which requires all California employers to offer three days’ worth of sick time. However, offering more sick time may provide your employees with the peace of mind that they can take off and still be paid, which may help keep your other employees safe and healthy.

Employee and customer communication

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses sent out communications and email newsletters alerting customers to new policies regarding public safety and—when relevant—monthly payments. When reopening your California business, you should devise a plan to maintain similarly regular, transparent communications with your employees and customers. You should also think about how exactly you plan to recall your employees.

Just because businesses are reopening does not mean that COVID-19 is a past concern, so be prepared to alert employees and customers to any potential exposures at your business and outline your plans for dealing with on-site transmission. You should prepare extra employee communications detailing any new business models or internal policy changes you’ve enacted following California’s entry into phase two. Your employees will be better prepared to raise any workplace COVID-19 concerns if you give them as much information as possible.

Your company has a responsibility to limit the spread of COVID-19 both within your workplace and the larger community. Keeping your customers and employees safe isn’t just morally sound, it’s good business. For more information about navigating the business challenges presented by COVID-19, visit our COVID-19 resource hub and our California coronavirus relief resources page.

Updated: June 16, 2020

Gusto Editors
Gusto Editors

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