Small businesses can't just reopen post-pandemic if we have to fend for ourselves

Once you're done navigating a series of confusing guidelines, then you have to navigate the interpersonal dynamics made difficult by pandemic politics.
Image: Florida's Palm Beach County Begins Slow Re-Opening Amid COVID-19 Pandemic
Melissa Corredor presents the check to Lorenzo Giusti, Junior Herrera and Eddie Wood as they enjoy lunch at Dontee's Diner on May 11, 2020 in Palm Beach, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images
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By Valerie Nielson-Staggs

When COVID-19 first hit the U.S. and then Florida — and eventually Palm Beach County, where I live and work — my partner and I did what responsible business owners across the country were told to do: We closed our office. Everyone was instructed to gather up their computers and prepare to work remotely until further notice.

Thankfully, we aren't a restaurant or a retail store; our business is run by computers, whether perched on office desks or nestled on the laps of pajama-clad workers. So our business continued — as the pandemic did — chaotically at first, but eventually everyone settled into this new normal that we are all continually trying (and failing) to define.

But three months later, Palm Beach County was restless; businesspeople wanted to get back to business as usual. Our economy, they said, had suffered enough. And so, with reopening on the horizon — whether we all liked it or not — I sat down to craft the guidelines that would dictate how my company would conduct business once we opened the office and called everyone back from their home cocoons.

Of course, even as I did so, the numbers of cases were rising — and they still are. The governor has started Phase 2 everywhere but South Florida; there has been no discussion of Phase 3. He scolds us for not wearing masks but refuses to require them, though Palm Beach County issued an order June 23 to require them in public indoor spaces. Still, the admonitions from Tallahassee and county officials are unlikely to change Palm Beachers' choice of face wear outdoors or in less public venues. (Lilly Pulitzer has yet to hit the runway with a floral mask collection, and N95s, if functional, are hardly fashionable.)

So I recently dedicated a day to learning the details of sanitizing workspaces, providing hand sanitizing stations, instituting temperature checks and safely handling guests and deliveries. I researched Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for workplaces like ours, as well as state and county guidance. I read about the methods of COVID-19 transmission, 6-foot distancing protocols and the hazards of shaking hands.

I called a friend, a lawyer who specializes in employment law; he told me employers are liable if an employee gets COVID-19 and the employer can't prove it provided a safe workplace per OSHA guidelines.

I sourced hand sanitizer with the correct percentage of alcohol, ordered masks and even found a backdoor connection for some Lysol wipes, given their lack of availability in the open market.

And then, at 6 p.m., I emailed the four-page directive to my business partner and sat down to a well-deserved glass of wine. Policies and procedures for reopening the office: done.

The return email from my business partner arrived before the bottom of my glass. "People can wear masks if it makes them more comfortable, but I won't be wearing a mask," it read. She also edited my policies and procedures, eliminating the option to use Skype for staff meetings because she prefers in-person meetings, removing criteria for us to consider requests to work from home and requesting that we add a date for when we can end these policies and procedures for good.

That, I thought to myself, would be a great thing to know.

I am the pragmatic one in our partnership; when we merged our two companies, she readily turned over all the management aspects to me. I am, and always have been, the superintendent of meetings and workflow and structure and employee management; I deal with the host of necessary tasks that go into running a business. Guidelines for returning to work were necessary, and she knew this — but she didn't have to like it.

I weighed the risk of her requested revisions, some of which I understood (except the end date request, which I dismissed as a momentary flight of fancy). She wanted people back in the office, not at home, where she thought they weren't as efficient as in an office setting. And the data on working from home during the pandemic is decidedly mixed, even if it's shown to boost productivity under better circumstances. I had no doubt our employees were occasionally absent from their home workstations at times during the day, whether attending to household chores or kids or just being distracted (and I confess that I had sneaked in a few loads of laundry during work hours myself) — but then, people lose focus in the office, too.

She had deleted Skype as an option for staff meetings, but I had outlined a plan to move meetings to a larger, open area where we could stay 6 feet apart. I knew that, in the pre-COVID world, her days were spent in meetings with people, live and in person; virtual meetings had been tedious and frustrating for her, and she couldn't wait to swap the virtual world for the real one. She just wanted to return to a time when we gathered carefree in groups of more than 10 and never once contemplated that a handshake might be lethal.

Didn't we all.

But refusing to wear a mask was against my drafted policy on wearing masks in common areas — which was problematic from a business policy standpoint, not to mention contrary to the governor's request and state and federal guidance. I knew I would have to battle this one out with her at some point before we opened; she couldn't just refuse to follow her own policy.

We distributed the policies at the next Skype staff meeting, telling the staff that we'll reopen in Phase II; we instructed them to review the policies because they'll be expected to sign them before returning to the office.

Within a day, an employee requested that a shared printer be moved out of her office; she was worried about people coming in and out of her workspace all day. We moved the printer to a common area; problem resolved.

"Will she be wearing a mask?" another employee emailed the same day; he already knew the answer. "I'm not sure what I will do if she doesn't. I can't afford to quit," he added.

Another asked to move her office and to be allowed to bring her own coffeepot and to Skype into the staff meetings from her desk; she, too, had contemplated quitting rather than endure the anxiety of returning to the office.

Of course, what they really wanted was something I couldn't write into the policies — a guarantee they wouldn't get sick — so I understood their requests. For months they had been told to stay home, limit social contact and do their part to flatten the curve. All the warnings had made the outside world a scary place; no wonder they didn't want to venture out, even if the destination was their own office. They had been told to be fearful of the risks of COVID-19, and now we were telling them to set aside those fears and return to the office when they'd been doing their jobs from the safety of home.

In Palm Beach County, this directive had also come in the midst of increasing COVID-19 infection rates, not the lower numbers they were promised if they followed all the rules. This isn't what was supposed to happen.

My business partner was largely unaware of the turmoil; she had no trepidation about reopening and little understanding of those who were afraid to come back to work. She pointed to the relatively low positive rate in the county's population and questioned why employees were afraid.

I alone will continue to hear about the coffeepot, the office relocation request and the many other anxieties our pending reopening will unearth. Amid all the guidance on sanitizing workplaces and social distancing, there is no protocol on mitigating employee panic or managing a partner's disdain for mask usage. There is only me — one business owner trying to find a middle ground between anxiety and apathy in the midst of a pandemic, all the while realizing there isn't one.

In the absence of any other guidance, I regularly appeal to a higher power: "Please God," I pray, "don't let Phase 2 happen any time soon."