Federal Guidelines for a Safe Reopening During Covid-19

Gusto Editors

Employers and employees alike are eager to return to work since the novel coronavirus caused many businesses to close their doors and individuals across the US to shelter in place earlier this year. But reopening without careful considerations can further fuel the spread of COVID-19. With the proper modifications and precautions, however, you can help keep your employees, customers, clients, and visitors safe.

Federal agencies have put out guidance to help state and local leaders make the best decisions to preserve public health and safety, and most importantly, curtail the spread of COVID-19. Here, we’ll review what those guidelines say and offer tips that employers should take into consideration as businesses reopen.

Opening Up America Again guidelines for employers

The White House has released reopening guidelines, which illustrate how and when businesses should reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. The guidelines encourage that certain basic criteria be met in the state or region in question. Once those criteria are met, a state or region is encouraged to consider reopening with a three-phased approach. The criteria are as follows:

  • The state or region must maintain a 14-day downward trajectory in cases.
  • Hospitals must be able to treat all patients without crisis care.
  • All at-risk healthcare workers must be able to get tested for the coronavirus.

States should also be able to demonstrate preparedness through several public health and public safety benchmarks. These guidelines vary at the state level and, in many cases, at the county or city level, so employers should consult with their local authorities, including health authorities and the mayor’s office or town council, before taking any action. The benchmarks are:

  • The ability to conduct widespread testing
  • The ability to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical equipment in the event of a surge in cases
  • Plans to guard the safety of essential workers
  • Guidelines for public transit
  • Conditions for social distancing in public places

The New York Times has a list of the current reopening phase for each state. While the actual guidelines issued for each phase vary from state to state, there are general similarities across the nation. The three recommended phases for reopening businesses are, generally, as follows:

Phase 1

Phase 1 requires individuals to avoid socializing in crowds of more than 10 people. Those in public should maintain distance from others where possible. Non-essential travel should be minimized, and those who travel internationally should isolate for 14 days upon return. Some states also require individuals traveling from another state to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Employers should continue to encourage telework and, if possible, have employees return to work in limited shifts, with common areas such as break rooms closed off.

How to approach  Phase 1 restrictions in your workplace:

  • Do not have more than 10 workers in the office or storefront at any given time. Many states have specific limits on how many workers per square foot can be present in retail or other spaces; be sure you are adhering to these restrictions.
  • Secure a supply chain for personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks and hand sanitizer. Employers are encouraged—and, in many states, required—to provide appropriate PPE for their employees.
  • Stagger shifts whenever possible to help enforce social distancing.
  • Consider physical barriers between employees, or between employees and customers, and closing off common areas.
  • Promote video and phone conversations instead of in-person meetings.
  • Minimize non-essential travel as much as possible.

Phase 2

Phase 2 continues to encourage working from home whenever possible. Although you can have up to  50 individuals gathered at a time starting in Phase 2, common areas in a workplace should continue to remain closed, and social distancing should still be enforced. Employers are encouraged to “strongly consider” special accommodations for employees in at-risk populations, like more generous work-from-home policies.

How to approach Phase 2 restrictions in your workplace:

  • Do not have more than 50 individuals in the workplace at any given time.
  • Keep common areas, such as break rooms, closed.
  • Reorganize the workplace to allow social distancing between employees.
  • Develop additional work-from-home provisions for at-risk employees.
  • Continue to limit non-essential travel.

Phase 3

Phase 3 encourages employers to resume “unrestricted staffing” of worksites, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still encouraged individuals to limit time spent in crowds. Although Phase 3 does not suggest that states expressly prohibit congregating in large groups, select businesses that service large crowds, such as venues and movie theaters, are encouraged to operate under “limited physical distancing protocols.” These businesses are encouraged to seek explicit guidance from their state or local authorities. We recommend that all employers consider the health and well-being of their teammates and their communities as they develop reopening plans.

How to approach Phase 3 restrictions in your workplace:

  • Most employees can return to the office. Work with employment counsel to ensure that at-risk employees have appropriate accommodations. 
  • Consider limiting time spent in common areas or in large gatherings, such as office-wide parties.
  • More non-essential travel can commence with proper precautions, such as mask wearing and frequent hand washing.
  • Continue to encourage proper hygiene protocol such as mask wearing and use of hand sanitizer. 

Safety requirements for employees and employers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released health and safety guidelines for businesses. If state and local authorities have permitted certain businesses to reopen, those businesses should follow the below recommended guidelines to ensure proper health and safety protocols are maintained.

  • Personal hygiene: Employees should frequently wash their hands, avoid unnecessary contact such as shaking hands, and wear face coverings when appropriate, like when interacting with the public or within close quarters. Employers should encourage these practices and should consider supplying hand sanitizer and other PPE to employees as an extra layer of precaution.
  • Maintain social distance: Whenever possible, employees should maintain at last six feet of distance between one another during the course of the work day. The CDC recommends employers consider ways to physically separate employees, including constructing partitions, changing the layout of the office, and staggering break times. Furthermore, employers may want to consider staggering office attendance so fewer employees are at the office at any given time, making it easier to maintain social distance.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting: Employers should consider regular cleaning and disinfection of office spaces, or an increase in the cleaning regimen if one is already in place. Daily disinfection of high touch points, such as doorknobs and elevator buttons, should be part of any cleaning routine. For specific guidance, review the CDC’s guidance for cleaning and disinfecting, or refer to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines for preparing workplaces for COVID-19.
  • Training: All employees should be thoroughly versed in the new hygiene and social distancing practices at the workplace. Consider holding a virtual company-wide meeting before reopening to make employees aware of the new guidelines, distributing written guidelines to employees, or both. This will also give employees a forum to raise any specific health and safety concerns that they have about the workplace.
  • Continued monitoring: The CDC encourages ongoing monitoring for illness in the workplace. According to both the CDC guidelines and the White House recommendations, employers may want to consider temperature checks among employees and sending home those who may have an elevated temperature. Sick policies should be implemented or expanded as necessary to comply with federal and state law, and any employee who is not feeling well should be encouraged to stay home. Additionally, the CDC recommends that employers have a plan in place in the event an employee is diagnosed with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, including resumption of work from home policies or increased decontamination of the office. Visit the CDC’s website to learn more about putting together a plan.

Best practices for small businesses

As you prepare your physical space for reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to revisit your internal affairs, too. Business operations may look very different with the “new normal” we’re about to experience. Financial matters, logistics, and human resource policies may need to be revised multiple times to reflect this evolving reality. 

As you prepare for reopening, make sure to examine the following areas of your business.

Business plans and models

The COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping how organizations approach their everyday business. As travel and face-to-face meetings are limited, your sales teams and other road warriors may face unique challenges acquiring new customers. If your business model relies on peer-to-peer interactions, you may need to pivot your existing plans, whether that means putting effort into ecommerce sales or holding sales presentations online.

Regional considerations

Not every state, or even every city within the same state, will be ready to reopen at the same time. This may affect when, how, and in which stages your business reopens. If you have multiple locations, it’s possible that one may be able to reopen safely and another may not. Employees who live in a heavier-hit region may not be able to commute safely, either. You may need to develop separate criteria per location—or make exceptions for certain employees—depending on how state, regional, or local rules shape your reopening plan.

Expense management

During the shutdown, many institutions put relief measures in place to ease the burden faced by small businesses, including waiving fees, eliminating penalties, and delaying payments. As businesses begin to reopen their doors—and as the true impact of lost revenue becomes clearer—these grace periods may come to an end. The below payments may have been affected by COVID-19 related waivers; check with each institution to confirm how and when payments resume:

  • Rent payments
  • Utilities payments
  • Mortgage payments
  • Interest paid on loans
  • Loan installation agreements
  • Banking fees
  • Payments to vendors

If you borrowed money during the pandemic, how you spend those funds and when you begin paying back those funds need to become a part of your budget, too. As you revisit and prepare your projections, do not forget to take these new expenditures and expenses into account.

Finally, work-from-home arrangements create new questions about employee expenses. In addition to the tax implications that remote employees can create, they also have logistical needs. As the dust settles and some work from home arrangements become a permanent fixture of office life, you’ll need to consider which expenses are considered essential for proper job performance. Some expenses to consider include:

People management

If you laid off or furloughed employees during the shutdown period, you may not have enough funds to bring back every employee the moment doors reopen. Determine if it’s better to bring back just a few key staff members, or if everyone returns at a limited capacity. You may also want to see if your state offers a work-share program. At the same time, you may want to revisit how long a hiring or contractor freeze may last, if you had one in place. 

For those employees coming into the office, it’s of the utmost importance that they use sick time whenever they feel run down. While employees may be in the habit of braving a minor cold or a little cough to save sick time, doing so could put others in the office at risk. If you don’t currently offer paid sick leave, this is the time to consider developing a sick leave policy, particularly given expanded legal requirements due to the pandemic. If you do offer sick leave, consider expanding the number of days employees can take, or being more lenient in how employees redeem those days.

You may find that your employees are interested in other benefits in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Health insurance that covers telehealth, life insurance policies, mental health support, or additional financial products are just some of the benefits that could signal to employees that you’re there for them, both in and out of the office.

Communicating with employees and customers

Naturally, your employees may have concerns about their well-being as the pandemic continues. Be open and honest with your employees. Make sure to let them know the measures you’ve taken as a company to protect their well-being. Be respectful about their concerns as well, taking special time and consideration to hear them out and respond in kind.

That same courtesy should be extended to clients, customers, and other visitors to your business, so that all individuals who frequent your business feel confident about your response. 

To learn more about your options during the novel coronavirus pandemic, visit our COVID-19 resource hub.

Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
Back to top