Every day, in areas all over the world, small businesses are disrupted by emergencies and disasters. Regardless of how safe you feel, no one can predict the future with one-hundred-percent certainty. If your business does not already have an emergency plan in place, you should make that a priority on your to-do list. Do it now, today. I mean it: As soon as you are done reading this article.
Chances are high that at some point in the life of your business, you will encounter an emergency, and if you have a plan, you can prevent panic and major turmoil in your life and the lives of your employees.
Our current news cycle is dedicated to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, and employers and employees alike have anxiety about what might happen should the virus spread. The impact has the potential to be severe and businesses everywhere are bracing for disruption. It is not unwise or irrational to develop a plan for your company, even in this early stage. Worries of a global pandemic are already impacting consumer/employee/business choices.
In our house, I am the resident emergency preparedness expert. I was a resident of Japan during the 2003 SARS pandemic, and after an ill-advised trip through Asia at the height of the spread, I was quarantined for 10 days while I self-monitored for symptoms. That event, combined with my experience writing a fictional exploration of a viral pandemic, has led me to become more pro-active about emergency planning.
Right now, you should be addressing employee and customer concerns about the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Should pandemic levels rise within your community, you need an informed plan and emergency procedures in place. It may feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.
- How will this affect me?
- What could this look like long term?
- What should I do to prepare?
If you don’t know where to start, that’s okay. Wash your hands, take a deep breath (not too deep if people around you are coughing), and follow me as I take you into my world: You are now a small business owner during a global viral outbreak and you have a plan.
Outbreak, Epidemic, Pandemic: What’s The Difference?
First things first. There are key differences between an outbreak, an epidemic, and a pandemic, and each impact your business differently.
- Outbreak:Â According to the World Health Organization, an outbreak occurs any time a disease spreads more often than statistically normal in a specific geographic area.
- Epidemic:Â An epidemic is the wide-spread outbreak of disease across multiple communities in a short period of time.
- Pandemic:Â The next level is a pandemic, which is a a global outbreak that impacts communities world-wide. (Pan, from your Greek roots studying days, means “everyone”.)
At the moment, COVID-19 is in the outbreak category and people with the virus are confined into specific geographic areas.
Even if your small business is not directly affected by sick employees/sick customers/school closures, your supply line might be slowed or halted depending on what happens throughout the world. If you live close to an outbreak area, expect an economic impact (for better or worse, depending on the services you offer).
The best thing to do right now is to keep yourself informed from reputable sources, and do your best to stay healthy — not just for your sake, but for the most vulnerable in our communities who depend on our health for their health.
Short-Term Strategies You Can Implement Right Now
It’s important to plan and prepare for a potential pandemic, but adopting best practices right now in our personal and professional lives may be able to prevent a pandemic, and that — at this moment– is the aim. Your business decisions should be informed with current and accurate knowledge and not driven from a place of blind panic. Panic helps no one. So, don’t panic, and do these things:
Open Lines Of Communication & Be Transparent
Worry breeds gossip, and gossip, rumors, and conjectures are never helpful, especially in a crisis. The best way to prevent gossip is to open up the lines of communication and be fully transparent. If you don’t have an emergency plan, yet, be upfront about it. Point your employees and contractors to reputable sources of information and do what you can to mitigate panic. Talk to HR about developing a streamlined source of communication for worried employees. Be honest. Be empathetic (people are worried). Be proactive, not reactive.
Develop An Emergency Plan
No matter what the emergency, your business needs a plan. For the COVID-19 outbreak, create contingency plans for what happens if:
- You or your employees become ill
- Schools close
- Work events are canceled
- You cannot receive supplies because of closed borders.
Already, conferences and summits are shuttering across the globe, and there will be a widespread economic impact if the virus continues to spread. Prepare for it, but not with worry: Prepare with methodical readiness.
Use this time to address your company-wide emergency preparedness for any emergency. If you have a brick and mortar store and the lights go out, do you have flashlights for your employees? Where are your fire routes posted? Is your business insurance updated? If you don’t have insurance, look into the options you have for protecting your business in a disaster or emergency. Business Interruption Insurance might cover your losses in the event of a pandemic; check with your insurance company.
Where should employees receive communication about business developments? Who should employees talk to if they are worried about their health plan or sick leave?
Your emergency plan is a living document, plan to revisit it often.
Do Your Part To Limit Community Spread
Community health is important. The COVID-19 virus is seemingly caused by close contact with an infected person who may or may not be symptomatic. Symptomatic employees should stay home and self-isolate. If you are able, allow your employees to work remotely, conduct business meetings in GoogleHangouts or via Skype, and embrace people’s choices regarding their own health. (I’m looking at you, guy who wanted to shake my hand and got all awkward when I stumbled away mumbling about not knowing you.)
This is a complicated and nuanced topic, but at the moment we need to exercise caution and allow the flexibility for workers to stay home without penalty if they are sick or need to care for someone who is sick.
Another thing to consider regarding community spread is to rethink what you ask customers to touch/engage with. While at the mall yesterday, my child played with an iPad on display, and ten-seconds after he vacated the device, an employee was there to clean the screen. (I also had my own child wash his hands, too.) I asked about the policy: They had a pretty strict cleaning policy in place prior to COVID-19 and wiping down touched surfaces happens regularly and quickly–screens are germy places. How often and how deeply are you cleaning community areas? Make a plan.
What If My City Is Quarantined?
Quarantine can be an emotionally challenging experience: I speak from my own past. In my situation, I was under house-quarantine with instructions to monitor my health. Every day, someone from my place of employment brought me treats, groceries, or get-well notes, but the boredom took a toll. The first few days were fun and I watched marathons of the X-Files. But by the time I arrived at day 10, I was desperate for human connection and freedom.
A city-wide quarantine could happen if a COVID-19 outbreak needs containment, and that decision would certainly alter any attempts to continue “business as usual.” Currently, the quarantine for COVID-19 is a mandatory 14 days in isolation. This might be one of your worst-case scenario events to plan or prepare for. Could your business still operate during a quarantine? Better yet, is there a way your small business could help during a quarantine? What does that look like? (Small businesses that can deliver goods and services might see a business increase, for example.)
We don’t know what is going to happen at the moment, so the only thing you can do is prepare and have a plan in place for quarantine. Expect losses and disruptions, prepare for them, and communicate wholly with your staff.
Why Pandemic Planning Is Important For Your Business
One hot summer day, when my kids were very little, I packed us up for a long walk to a local park. Inside our stroller, I packed a giant first aid kit and some snacks. It wasn’t until we were about halfway to our destination and my youngest said he was thirsty that I realized I didn’t bring water. We didn’t need the 100 bandaids. We needed water.
If you haven’t planned effectively for the emergencies or disasters that might occur at your business, you could be left adrift in the middle of a crisis without the right tools. Pandemic planning is important because, well, here we are! This is the current fear and it’s a statistically relevant concern.
However, any type of emergency planning is necessary for your small business. Explore business insurance, look for ways to reduce potential community spread, have answers for worried employees, and be honest about the impacts an emergency might have on the business.
Think about your geographic area and prepare for the emergency/disaster that might occur and ramp up your plans. Whether it’s an earthquake, flood, tornado, hurricane, man-caused disaster, or pandemic, your business should have a plan. You must communicate that plan and ease the worries of those you employ, serve, and meet in the community. In an emergency, we often learn that we are all in this together.
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