May 29, 2020

How to safely reopen America's offices, according to CDC

Daily Briefing

    CDC on Wednesday released new guidelines outlining the steps employers should take to safely reopen U.S. offices and reduce their employees' risk of exposure to the new coronavirus—and observers say the recommendations could drastically reshape the American corporate experience.

    New: Your checklist for reopening offices to administrative staff

    US Covid-19 cases surpass 1.7M, death toll tops 101K

    CDC released the guidelines as the country's new coronavirus epidemic this week claimed more than 100,000 American lives. U.S. officials as of Friday morning had reported 1,730,200 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus—up from 1,707,700 cases as of Thursday morning.

    As of Friday morning, officials also had reported a total of 101,635 U.S. deaths linked to the new coronavirus—up from 100,426 deaths reported as of Thursday morning.

    CDC issues comprehensive guidelines for reopening US offices

    While the numbers of newly reported cases of Covid-19 and related deaths in America continue to grow, many states are moving forward with their plans to reopen nonessential businesses and ease social distancing measures that were implemented to curb the new coronavirus' spread. In light of those plans, CDC on Wednesday released detailed guidelines on how employers can resume operations while still taking precautions to avoid the virus' transmission among workers.

    1. Ensure facilities are safe for reopening

    First, CDC in the guidelines recommends that, before reopening, employers should check to ensure their facilities are safe, particularly if they had been subject to "prolonged … shutdown[s]." The agency suggests, for example, that employers evaluate whether their ventilation systems are functioning properly and check for any other hazards that can be associated with reduced occupancy and maintenance—including mold growth, rodents, or pests—in their facilities. CDC also recommends that employers increase outdoor air circulation in their buildings by using fans and opening windows and doors whenever doing so wouldn't pose any safety or health risks to current or future occupants.

    2. Assess facilities to identify and correct 'close contact' areas

    Next, CDC suggests that employers determine where and how their employees could be exposed to the new coronavirus while at work and take steps to reduce that risk. For instance, CDC recommends that employers identify areas where employees typically come into close contact with one another—such as break rooms and meeting rooms—and, whenever possible, modify those spaces to allow employees to stay six feet apart.

    CDC suggests that, if furniture, workstations, and seats cannot be rearranged to allow for physical distancing, employers should install physical barriers, such as transparent shields, to help protect workers from potential exposure to the new coronavirus. Employers also should use visual cues—such as colored tape, decals, signs, and tape marks—to indicate where employees can stand to remain safely physically distanced from one another, CDC advises. In addition, CDC suggests that employers institute new cleaning policies for communal spaces.

    CDC in the guidelines also recommends that employers "replace high-touch communal items, such as coffee pots, water coolers, and bulk snacks, with alternatives such as prepackaged, single-serving items."

    3. Put in place safety measures to protect employees from potential Covid-19 exposure 

    Further, CDC recommends that employers conduct daily health screenings for workers. CDC in the guidelines suggests that employees undergo daily health checks either in-person or virtually before they are permitted to enter workplace facilities.

    CDC also suggests that employers encourage employees to frequently wash their hands for at least 20 seconds; to avoid touching their faces, shaking hands, and fist-bumping; and to wear face masks or cloth face coverings in all areas of a workplace facility.

    In addition, CDC suggests that employers consider staggering workers' "shifts, start times, and break times as feasible to reduce the density of employees in common areas such as break rooms and locker rooms." CDC also advised employers to provide workers with incentives to avoid using public transportation, such as "reimbursement for parking," and to limit visitors at workplace facilities.

    Employers could struggle to adopt CDC's recommendations

    Fully adhering to CDC's new recommendations could "lead to a far-reaching remaking of the corporate work experience" in America—but some of the guidelines might be impractical, the New York Times reports. For example, the Times reports CDC advises employers to "limit use and occupancy of elevators to maintain social distancing of at least six feet."

    Peter Kimmel—the publisher of FMLink, a publication for the facilities management industry—similarly said CDC's guidelines are "a good checklist of what needs to be done," but they also raise many questions. For instance, he said following the agency's guidelines would "mea[n] many fewer workplaces per floor, reducing the density considerably." As such, Kimmel asked, "Where will the remaining workers be housed?"

    But overall, Tracy Wymer—VP of workplace for Knoll, a large office-furniture company—said employees' compliance with new policies that employers put in place to curb the new coronavirus' transmission will play a major role in the measures' success. "The biggest factor is on the work force and the personal responsibility they must take in making this reality work" (Richtel, New York Times, 5/28; Lonas, Washington Examiner, 5/28; CDC guidelines, 5/27; New York Times, 5/29).

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