COVID-19 Crisis: Socially Distancing Your Business

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Amidst the novel coronavirus outbreak, small businesses have been hit harder than ever before. Gyms and bars are closing as cities issue shelter-in-place orders, restaurants are switching to take-out-only models and office workers are transitioning to working from home. Beyond that, essential businesses like grocery stores, pharmacies and hardware stores have ramped up operations while consumers panic-buy supplies — but currently, nothing is certain. Nobody really knows how long state-wide lockdowns are going to last.

It’s estimated that the economic toll of the global pandemic could cost 5 million jobs in the United States — largely spread across the service, travel and hospitality industries — and more retailers will be permanently closing their doors than ever before. About 50% of small-business owners surveyed by Goldman Sachs said they probably wouldn’t be able to operate their business for more than three months in society’s current conditions. Those that attempt to weather the storm need to both innovate and keep their customers safe, which means instilling strict social-distancing measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

First, Wash Your Hands

This is the most basic, obvious method to fight disease, but employees need to wash their hands more than ever before. Touch a dollar? Wash your hands. Interact with a customer? Wash your hands.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, people should be washing their hands:

  • Before, during and after preparing food

  • Before eating

  • Before and after caring for someone

  • Before and after treating a wound or cut

  • After using the toilet

  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing

  • After touching garbage

  • After handling pet food or treats

  • After touching an animal, animal feed or animal waste (bodega cats, we’re looking at you)

Hand washing is a process. You should wet your hands, lather them and then scrub for a minimum of 20 seconds before rinsing and drying. How long is 20 seconds? It's about the same amount of time that it takes to sing the chorus of Britney Spears’s 2000 hit “Oops! ... I Did It Again.”

It’s also important to be wary of hot-air hand dryers. Paper towels are the most hygienic way to dry hands and prevent the spread of disease, and hot-air hand dryers have a tendency to spread bacteria and other germs.

Purchase the Proper Supplies and Clean Frequently

Businesses that remain open during the novel coronavirus outbreak can use certain supplies to help prevent the spread of the disease. Business owners may wish to stock up on:

  • Soap, disinfecting wipes, bleach and other cleaning products
  • Latex gloves: This can protect employees who are dealing with potentially ill customers. However, the gloves do get contaminated and must be changed regularly.

  • Surgical masks: These help prevent potentially ill employees from passing on the disease, but they do little to protect employees from contracting the virus.

  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer: According to the CDC, hand sanitizer is less effective than soap and should be used as a backup. Hand sanitizer should contain at least 60% alcohol to be effective and may be less effective if hands are visibly dirty.

Currently, it is not recommended that small businesses purchase N95 masks, which can actually prevent employees and customers from spreading COVID-19, because the majority of the general public does not wear them correctly, and there is a national shortage among health care workers who are at the largest risk of exposure.

In addition to purchasing supplies, many small businesses have ramped up their cleaning schedule. You may want to ask your employees to wash their hands every 15 minutes and sanitize surfaces every 30 minutes. Some stores may wish to sanitize high-touch surfaces like POS systems and credit card machines more frequently.

Share Cleaning Products With Customers

Many businesses that remain open during the novel coronavirus outbreak have helped protect their customers by giving them the supplies they need to thwart the spread of the disease. For example, upon entry, retailers that are allowed to remain open may offer customers hand sanitizer upon entry and exit. Other retailers may wish to give customers disinfecting wipes to clean shopping carts and other items.

Enact Methods to Limit Customer Contact

The U.S. government has been touting the benefits of social distancing, which is a proven method to prevent the spread of disease during a pandemic. Unfortunately, this can get a little tricky for a small shop hoping to service customers. To minimize contact, small businesses can:

  • Limit brick-and-mortar locations to no more than 10 patrons at one time: This goes along with government recommendations of avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people. In densely populated areas like New York City and San Francisco, businesses may be forbidden from having patrons inside altogether.

  • Have customers wait in line outside: The virus is spread through respiratory droplets and is more likely to spread if groups of people are enclosed in a small indoor space.

  • Keep customers and employees 6 feet apart: This is the standard measurement for social distancing.

In addition, some retail locations have enacted special hours when at-risk individuals can browse before everyone else. This is a particularly important move for grocers, convenience stores and pharmacies so at-risk consumers can get everything they need at once and limit the number of trips they must make.

Offer No-Contact Service

Beyond social distancing, some businesses have been moving toward no-contact service to prevent the spread of the virus. This includes:

  • Propping doors open so customers don’t have to touch anything but their order.

  • Accepting only cashless payments so money does not change hands.

  • Allowing for curbside pickup so customers do not leave their car and risk exposure.

  • Having delivery drivers drop off food at doorsteps rather than handing it to customers directly.

Start a Delivery Program

In some cities, businesses in the service industry have been forced to close their locations, but others voluntarily closed to help keep their employees and customers safe. Instead, many companies have shifted to a delivery-only model, which often requires a little innovation if you’re not a restaurant. It all depends on the industry.

For example, some hair salons have been doing video consultations and mailing premixed dye kits and supplies to customers so they can perform their own custom salon service. Unfortunately, this only works for the simplest salon treatments and isn’t really a great option for customers who need to use harsh chemicals like bleach, which can cause chemical burns if applied improperly.

Get Online

With some cities experiencing strict shelter-in-place orders, small businesses have turned to the work-from-home model. Basically, any employee who can work from home should work from home during this time. There is a small silver lining to not being in the office: Working from home is actually proven to increase productivity once you get the hang of it.

Companies have been increasingly turning to video chat and instant messaging software like Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts and Skype to host virtual meetings with employees. Other small businesses have been using the virtual method with their customers. For example, a yoga studio may offer online video classes, musicians may live-stream concerts or lessons and doctors may practice telemedicine for prescription renewals and minor ailments.

Stay Transparent

Going forward, it’s unclear exactly what’s going to happen as the virus spreads through the U.S. Will shops be able to reopen in three weeks or three months? As news changes, it’s important to remain transparent with your customers so they feel safe purchasing your products and services.

The best ways to promote transparency are to send out a newsletter and post on social media about how you’re social distancing and the methods your company is taking to prevent the spread of the virus. If an employee tests positive, it’s important to tell your customers and potentially shutter your doors for two weeks to ensure that all employees who were in contact with the sick worker are not ill. Remember that many people with the novel coronavirus don’t show symptoms, only show minor symptoms or are asymptomatic for up to 14 days.

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About the Author

Mariel Loveland is a small business owner, content strategist and writer from New Jersey. Throughout her career, she's worked with numerous startups creating content to help small business owners bridge the gap between technology and sales. Her work has been featured in publications like Business Insider and Vice.