To Reopen or Not to Reopen: That is the Question

By Eric Wokas, Risk Control Consultant

While not as dire as Hamlet’s soliloquy about life and death, it is very close.

Should we live in the pain of an economic recession or throw off the restrictions and face the uncertainty. To put it a bit more mildly – out of the frying pan and into the fire.

At the end of May, many States have initiated reopening on a limited basis. Questions will remain over when and under what circumstances the public can re-emerge from their homes. But even if deciding when to reopen, the next question is — how? How can one factory reopen when its suppliers remain shuttered? How can parents return to work when schools are still closed? How can older people return when there is still no effective treatment or vaccine? What is the government’s role in helping private businesses that initially need to operate at less than normal capacity?

Much of the debate has focused on the government mandates, but if shutdown orders are lifted, will customers actually return?

Data from OpenTable, the restaurant reservation service, indicates that people largely stopped eating out well before official shutdown orders took effect. In Sweden and other countries without formal lockdowns, likewise showed that people sharply reduced their activities even without government mandates. That everyday drum beat of more COVID-19 positive tests and a rising death count has dampened people’s desire to resume activity.

Basically, the economy’s not going to be reopened until people want it to reopen. Currently, there is little evidence that the public is ready. Contrary to what you see in the news, surveys show widespread support for shutdown orders and little appetite for a rapid return. Businesses are concerned that rushing back to daily life too quickly will result in another flare-up and another lockdown which would leave customers more wary and the scary possibility of a second wave.

The same holds true especially for employees. Will they show up if they feel the workplace is unsafe? For the employer – how long will they remain open if workers and customers become ill and what liabilities would they be faced with. To alleviate the public, employee and employer fears, the controls and enforcement of those controls need to improve to the point where people feel it is safe.

This can be accomplished by increased testing and contact tracing to identify people for quarantine. Along with (the never said often enough) hand washing, physical distancing and wearing an effective face covering to mitigate the virus spread. Hospitals and healthcare providers will need a steady and reliable supply of PPE, beds and ventilators. This will allow people with COVID-19 to get treatment at a hospital rather than having to stay home, further reducing the rate of spread and improve recovery rates.

For employers, especially those that have difficulty maintaining physical distancing, they must identify high-risk employees then implement and enforce their exposure control plans. This includes but not limited to; temperature tracking of workers, physical barriers, increased facility sanitation and an ample supply of (preferably) surgical grade or better face masks.

Right after Memorial Day, the number of known COVID-19 cases in NJ is about 156,000, with over 11,000 fatalities. The number of fatalities doubled from 5,500 about one month ago. All indications are that the curve is flattening. With the beginning of reopening, what the rate will be in the weeks or months from now is anybody’s guess. It all depends on how vigilant we, the public, are in maintaining the methods and controls that help protect us all.

At the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy, he pulls himself out of his funk by deciding that too much thinking about it prevents the action he has to rise to. Which, for all of us, we must come to the same decision and rise to the occasion.

As an aside, Shakespeare was born during a pandemic and lived through at least four more. While in quarantine during one of the pandemics he wrote King Lear. Now that’s putting downtime to good use.

 

 

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