As entrepreneurs, small business owners are used to setting goals and solving problems. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many small businesses into the unenviable position of deciding when to reopen—and how to do it safely. 

Even when the regulations of your state or locality permit reopening, the details are complex and not always clear. Small business owners have to problem-solve and make their own plans to keep employees and customers safe.

If you decide to move forward, here are some things to keep in mind to help you reopen your small business safely, including workplace safety advice from the CDC.  It also has guidelines directed specifically toward small businesses that owners and managers should carefully review.

Key Takeaways

  • As you reopen your small business, keep social distancing guidelines in place.
  • Encourage workers and customers to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer frequently.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at least once a day and more often in high-traffic areas.
  • Provide PPE to your workers if required by your state or if your workers request it, and make a policy that addresses guidelines on proper usage.
  • Develop a policy for working from home that treats all workers fairly.
  • The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said employees could be barred from the workplace if they refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Follow Social Distancing Guidelines

By now, everyone has heard of social distancing—when you stay at least six feet away from other people, stay away from crowded places, and avoid gathering in groups. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that "limiting face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)."

While social distancing is a proven and effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19, it can be difficult to maintain in the workplace. Still, social distancing is the new norm—and it will be for the foreseeable future. Depending on your workspace, here are some ways to help employees and customers keep a safe distance:

  • Rethink desks, displays, and workspaces to create more distance.
  • Move some staff to different workstations or stagger work hours to limit the number of workers in one area at any given time.
  • Limit the number of seats in common areas.
  • In places where workers or customers wait in lines, use tape to mark six-foot intervals.
  • Place signs or use announcements to remind workers and customers to maintain social distance.
  • Manage breakrooms to limit the number of people who gather at one time.
  • Encourage workers to skip previously customary greetings like handshakes, hugs, and cheek-kisses.
  • Post signs outside the office or shop that advise people not to enter if they've had COVID-19 symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has been infected.

Set a good example for your workers and customers. If you're asking them to wear a mask, you should, too.

Wash Your Hands

According to the CDC, COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact for a prolonged period. It spreads when an infected person (who may or may not have symptoms) coughs, sneezes, breathes, sings, or talks—and then launches droplets into the air, which can infect other people.

It's also possible to get COVID-19 if you touch something that has the virus and then touch your own mouth, nose, or eyes. COVID-19 can live on surfaces for hours or even days, depending on factors like humidity and sunlight.

While social distancing is the best way to slow the spread of the virus, it's also essential to bump up your efforts to maintain a clean and sanitary workplace. Start by installing signs to encourage workers to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (about as long as it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice):

  • After they've been in a public place
  • When they get to work
  • After they sneeze, cough, or blow their nose
  • Before and after eating
  • Before and after touching their eyes, nose, and mouth
  • After they interact with coworkers and customers
  • After they touch displays and other equipment
  • After they visit the restroom or take breaks

Good handwashing takes practice. Encourage workers to wash their hands frequently (including the backs of hands, between fingers, and under nails) and to use hand sanitizer when they can't use soap.

When handwashing isn't practical, encourage workers to use hand sanitizer. It's a good idea to make hand sanitizer available to workers, customers, and visitors. If you don't have them already, install hand sanitizer dispensers in common areas, at workstations, and anywhere people are likely to interact or touch surfaces that could be contaminated with the virus.

Clean and Disinfect

It's always smart to maintain a clean workspace, but it's especially important now. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at least once a day—and much more frequently in high-traffic areas such as checkout counters in a store or the counters of your office's kitchen and break areas.

Be sure to clean doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, tables, desks, keyboards, remote controls, elevator buttons, toilets (including handles), faucets, sinks, cash registers/point of sale (POS), displays, business equipment, and phones. Encourage workers to clean their personal phones, too, as well as any other equipment they bring from home into the workplace.

Of course, all of these cleaning and disinfecting supplies can be dangerous if not used properly. Be sure to provide guidelines for using them safely and provide the proper equipment—such as gloves and masks—and adequate ventilation to limit chemical exposure. Better yet, hire professional cleaners who already have safety systems in place. 

PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers guidance in terms of keeping employees safe during the COVID-19 emergency.

According to OSHA, "Employers are obligated to provide their workers with PPE [personal protective equipment] needed to keep them safe while performing their jobs. The types of PPE required during a COVID-19 outbreak will be based on the risk of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 while working and job tasks that may lead to exposure."

Employers are required by OSHA standards to:

  • Determine what PPE is needed for their workers' specific job duties,
  • Select and provide appropriate PPE to the workers at no cost, and
  • Train their workers on its correct use.

Examples of PPE include gloves, goggles, face shields, face masks, and respiratory protection. According to OSHA, all types of PPE must be:

  • Selected based upon the hazard to the worker
  • Properly fitted and periodically refitted
  • Consistently and properly worn when required
  • Regular inspected, maintained, and replaced, as necessary
  • Property removed, cleaned, and stored or disposed of

Even if your state doesn't have any PPE requirements, your workers may still want you to provide such equipment. Either way, it will be up to you to make a policy that addresses guidelines that answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of PPE usage—including how your business will:

  • Obtain the necessary equipment in a timely manner
  • Train workers to use the equipment effectively and safely
  • Clean and store the equipment
  • Deal with workers who don't want to comply   

Obviously, PPE is more vital in certain settings than others. If your workplace isn't public-facing and your workers are spread out, you may need less rigorous guidelines than if you're reopening a crowded retail shop or food service location.

Still, the CDC advises that employers should encourage employees to wear cloth face coverings (that cover the mouth and nose) in the workplace, if appropriate. However, keep in mind that wearing a cloth face covering does not replace the need to practice social distancing.


One of the biggest challenges that large-city businesses now face is how to keep workers safe during the commute. It's nearly impossible to adhere to the CDC's recommended six-foot distance on a crowded bus, train, or subway. Some companies have found ways to subsidize workers' car payments or leases to encourage private transport, while others have secured satellite offices outside of city centers. If you're a small business, however, these options may not be feasible.

It's likely that some (or all) of your workers have worked from home (WFH) since the lockdown started—and that some would like to continue to do so, especially if they don't feel safe returning to the workplace. Now's the time to develop a policy for how you'll handle operations if people want to keep working from home.

You may already have set up systems for conducting business online (think: Zoom, Slack, Skype, Facetime, and the like). Think about what you need going forward and how to maintain and support these functionalities. It's also a good time to work on long-term plans to make it easier to shift to a WFH setup next time around. 

To avoid trouble, create a work-from-home policy that is fair to all employees.

Health Screenings

It may seem like a smart safety measure to take your workers' temperatures before they enter the workplace. However, managing the practice is easier said than done because it introduces three potential problems:

  • How do you keep the biometric data private once you gather it?
  • How do you compensate workers who have to wait in line to be tested?
  • How do you maintain social distancing while workers wait in line?

Some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever, so employers should be aware that temperature checks don't guarantee safety.

Some states have guidelines in place that can help you navigate health screenings. Still, you may have to find creative ways to mitigate any potential problems. For example, you could use instant-read thermometers, not record any data, and stagger work hours so that employees don't have to wait in line to be tested. If possible, contract with healthcare professionals to do the testing instead of relying on untrained staffers to do so.

COVID-19 Tests and Vaccines

Employers are generally able to require COVID-19 testing and vaccinations when the vaccine becomes available.

According to guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "Employers may choose to administer COVID-19 testing to employees before initially permitting them to enter the workplace and/or periodically to determine if their presence in the workplace poses a direct threat to others."

Employers should ensure the tests are considered accurate and reliable. Also, antibody tests—which determine if you've ever had the virus—should not be used to make decisions about returning employees to the workplace.

In guidelines issued in December, the federal government said that employers can require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine—and bar them from the workplace if they refuse to do so.

For more information about requiring vaccinations when they are available—and how to respond to employees who refuse—read the guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Bottom Line

The CDC advises employers to "monitor federal, state, and local public health communications about COVID-19 regulations, guidance, and recommendations and ensure that workers have access to the information." In addition, the CDC recommends that employers:

  • Actively encourage sick employees to stay home
  • Consider conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks
  • Identify where and how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work
  • Have procedures in place to separate sick employees
  • Take action if an employee is suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19
  • Educate employees about steps they can take to protect themselves at work and at home
  • Implement flexible sick leave and supportive policies and practices
  • Maintain a healthy work environment

Being an entrepreneur is never easy, but the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a whole new level of problem-solving for small businesses. When it's time to reopen your business, taking these steps can help ensure you're doing everything possible to protect yourself, your workers, and your customers.