Americans Must Be Allowed to Safely Get Back to Work
Make “Safety” not “Essential Services” the Test
Ravaged by COVID-19, the American economy is on the precipice of economic free fall. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard has forecasted a 30% U.S. unemployment in the second quarter and a possible GDP plunge of 50%. Goldman Sachs has made similar warnings about our economic trajectory.
American businesses are not merely struggling with concerns of employee health and safety, a dramatic drop in demand, and disruptions to their supply chain. Some state and local authorities are shutting down all but remote services business operations, and what they deem to be “essential services” like hospitals, clinics, grocery stores, and take-out restaurants.
As the Wall Street Editorial Board recently wrote, the self-quarantines and business restrictions may be necessary and prudent for a short period, but they are not sustainable. The Editorial Board wrote, “our leaders and our society will very soon need to shift their virus-fighting strategy to something that is sustainable.”
Essential Services is the Wrong Test
All businesses are essential to someone. To find a “sustainable” solution during this crisis, we need to quickly move past the question of whether a business is “essential” and start asking if a business can operate safely.
Each executive needs to take all necessary actions to ensure their workers and customers are safe. This is the modern, Coronavirus reality. If businesses want to reopen, they sadly must demonstrate to politicians that restrictions on safe businesses must be lifted.
In ordering lockdowns, state and local officials have typically not given a time table for lifting the restrictions, and have not offered criteria for demonstrating that a business can operate safely. Business leaders should not wait for public officials to offer safety guidelines or a transparent process for appealing government-imposed restrictions. Rather business leaders should build the case that their businesses are safe, demonstrating to skeptical public officials that they have implemented all safety precautions, sometimes even going above and beyond CDC guidelines.
There is no time to litigate the constitutionality of each of these state and local commercial shutdowns. Rather, this is a time for innovation, leadership, and demonstrably safe procedures. Like physicians and scientists calling for people to modify their behavior in response to the virus, executives must put science to work for them to show their companies’ dedication to safety.
Health and Safety Protocols
Essential services in healthcare, agriculture, logistics, and the food service and supply are rapidly deploying new protocols and best practices to mitigate the risk of transmission of coronavirus.
Each company needs to examine every human-to-human interaction, and every human interaction with equipment or tools, and develop proper protocols and guidelines for the safety of workers and customers.
American industry will not get through this difficult time by working from home and Zoom meetings alone. Yes, certain services can use technology to function virtually. But much of our economy still involves human interaction with the physical world. That includes humans that are typing on computers, driving vehicles and heavy machinery, handling tools, and sharing lunch room and bathroom facilities.
Business leaders need to understand how the virus is spread and how at each step of human activity, steps can be taken to mitigate or prevent the risk of transmission and infection.
We should not accept a false dilemma that our only choices are commercial quarantines or pandemic. We need to expand the options.
Make every task safe
We all know the basics of washing hands and keeping a safe distance from other individuals. But we should reinforce these lessons, where possible, through shielding workers from each other. For instance, some grocery stores are now installing clear protective shields between cashiers and customers. This is an effective, inexpensive, low-tech solution that can ensure the safe operation of grocery stores. The simplicity of this innovation can be an example for other industries.
Workers who will be interacting with other people, or tools handled by other workers, may now need to wear gloves and protective gear. Companies will need to educate their workers on the most rudimentary tasks such as properly putting on, wearing, and taking off, and washing things like goggles, work clothes and gloves.
Instead of shutting down a business, it may be possible to continue operations with heightened health and safety protocols. This goes beyond merely washing hands and keeping a social distance. It involves every activity that could expose a worker to the virus. For instance, a local delivery driver might need to examine step-by-step all the protocols for handling materials, interacting with people, and safely reusing garments including gloves that might have been exposed to the virus.
Putting America Back to Work
We see story after story of medical equipment shortages, supply chain disruptions, and quickly-emptied grocery shelves. To alleviate the public health crisis and simultaneously avoid a 30% or more GDP plunge, we must produce our way through this crisis. We are a very resourceful nation with innovative leaders and workers. We need to unleash the talents of our people, not sideline them when we need their talents. To do that, business leaders must be prepared to demonstrate they can operate without jeopardizing the safety of their employees or customers.