On Thursday, the White House released guidelines for reopening of businesses, schools, and other public institutions as the COVID-19 outbreak improves. While the timing and extent of reopening decisions will be left to the states, the guidelines provide broad indications of how such measures will be phased in, depending on decreasing COVID-19 cases in those areas.
Before any modifications to the current business closing and stay-at-home orders, states will need to have in place three systems: (1) the ability to quickly establish safe and effective COVID-19 testing and screening sites; (2) assurances that testing and monitoring includes asymptomatic COVID-19 cases; and (3) tracking systems for COVID-19 positive persons. Currently, limited testing and tracking capabilities mean that states could not begin the phase-in even if new COVID-19 cases are flat or declining.
Once the above testing and monitoring systems are in place, relaxation of COVID-19 orders will occur in three phases. Each phase is premised on either a 14-day drop in COVID-19 cases in the affected area, or a 14-day decline in positive COVID-19 tests, assuming increased or at least flat testing capabilities.
During the first phase, schools and day cares remain closed. Public social distancing requirements remain in place, and employees capable of teleworking continue to do so. No public gatherings of 10 or more people are permitted. Within these restrictions, restaurants, gyms, and event spaces may open following strict distancing and sanitation requirements. Outpatient elective surgeries may resume.
For the second phase, states will remove the ban on non-essential travel. Telework is still encouraged, and employers must restrict use of common areas for those at work. Employers will make special (but unspecified) accommodations for vulnerable employees, such as elderly workers and those with chronic health issues. Schools can reopen, and public venues may operate with moderate physical distancing.
In the third phase, companies may drop restricted staffing rules. Public venues may operate with limited physical distancing in place. During any phase, states may suspend or reverse additional relaxation of emergency rules if COVID-19 hot spots emerge or reoccur.
These guidelines, even if followed by individual states, make clear that any return to normal business operations will be protracted, and it cannot begin until COVID-19 testing and monitoring problems are resolved. Employers should take these steps and guidelines into account when making business recovery plans. Any such plans should take into account the likelihood of a protracted transition back to situations where groups of people can be in close contact with one another. This may affect business capacity, production methods, and supply chain issues.