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 how to reopen safely. Regulations vary by state and 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.

Here are some things to keep in mind to help you reopen your small business safely, including workplace safety advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Key Takeaways

  • Regulations and guidelines vary by state and local municipalities, so make sure to check and monitor them.
  • As you reopen your small business, keep social distancing guidelines in place.
  • Encourage workers 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.
  • Develop a policy for working from home that treats all workers fairly.
  • Federal law says employees can be barred from the workplace if they refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • If you don't require employees to be vaccinated or have workers who are high risk, consider guidelines on how to keep your workplace safe for all.

Monitor State and Local Requirements

How you safely reopen your small business will in part be determined by state and local requirements and the type of business you run. Requirements can vary by state and your local municipality. A restaurant or retail business will have different needs than a small office, where there is little or no interaction with customers.

The CDC recommends that all businesses should:

  • Create a plan specific to their workplace.
  • Identify all areas and job tasks with potential exposure COVID-19.
  • Implement measures to eliminate or reduce exposure to the virus.

The CDC also 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."

You can find guidelines for specific industries on the CDC’s website.

 

Vaccines and Testing

As a small business owner, you'll have to decide whether or not to require that employees be vaccinated before returning 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.

Employers are also generally able to require COVID-19 testing. According to guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "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 May of 2021, the CDC said that fully vaccinated people could resume activities without wearing a mask or practicing social distancing, except when required by federal, state or regulations, including local business and workplace guidance. However, it maintains that everyone in a small business workplace should still wear masks, as well as continue to follow guidelines to open and operate safely.

The following are guidelines from the CDC and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that small businesses owners and managers should carefully review and follow.

According to the CDC, employers should continue to encourage employees to stay home if sick, even if they are vaccinated. Businesses should also keep workplace health and safety measures, such as barrier protections, in place after employees are vaccinated.

Follow Social Distancing Guidelines

Though 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 the CDC recommends 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.
  • Manage break rooms to limit the number of people who gather at one time.
  • 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

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 co-workers and customers
  • After they touch displays and other equipment
  • After they visit the restroom or take breaks

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.

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 or office kitchen counters 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. 

Guidance for At-Risk Employees

OSHA offers guidance in terms of keeping at-risk and unvaccinated employees safe. It defines at-risk employees as those who are vaccinated, but due to a medical condition, may not have a full immune response to the vaccine. OSHA recommends the following:

  • Providing time off for employees to be vaccinated
  • Telling all employees (vaccinated and unvaccinated) who have
    COVID-19 or have symptoms to stay home
  • Implementing social distancing for unvaccinated and at-risk
    employees in communal work areas
  • Limiting the number of these employees in the same place, at the same time
  • Providing unvaccinated and at-risk employees with face
    coverings or surgical masks at no cost

Like the CDC, OSHA recommends that all businesses comply with state and local rules.

Telework

If it's feasible for the type of business you run, it's likely that some (or all) of your workers have worked from home during the pandemic—and that some would like to continue to do so. Now is the time to develop a policy for how you'll handle operations if people want to keep working from home, full or part-time.

You may already have set up systems for conducting business online (think: Zoom, Slack, Skype, and the like). Think about what you need going forward if you plan to allow employees to work from home indefinitely.

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 potential problems such as:

  • How do you keep the biometric data private after you gather it?
  • How do you maintain social distancing while workers wait in line?

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 perform the testing instead of relying on untrained staffers to do so.

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

The Bottom Line

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