On April 28, 2020, we discussed what flattening the curve really means for businesses and how to return to work safely with public health expert Dr. Ken Wells, president of Alken Health Resources.

ERISAfire COVID-19 Town Hall Recording - Week 6
April 28, 2020

Featured Q&A

We flattened the curve, so we’re fine now, right? Can everything can go back to normal?

“Flattening the curve” is a phrase that describes a public health strategy of restricted movement and social distancing with one goal and one goal only: to help the healthcare industry so the healthcare system would not be overwhelmed. That’s it. It does not reduce the number of COVID-19 cases. It merely trades a shorter-term spike for a longer-term duration of less magnitude. Imagine you took your hand and smushed the top of the taller, red curve down. As you push the red curve down it widens along the base to look like the blue curve.

Source: The New York Times, “Flattening the Coronavirus Curve,” https://www.nytimes.com/article/flatten-curve-coronavirus.html.


Flattening the curve does not eliminate the disease or even reduce the number of cases. Instead, it spreads the number of infected individuals out over a longer period of time. Keeping the curve flat requires that movement restrictions and social distancing measures be in place for a longer period of time.

Which states are opening back up?

Multi-state employers would be interested to know which states have ended their stay-at-home orders in the month of April: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wyoming.

It will not necessarily be business as usual in those states, though, so employers should review each state’s instructions before bringing employees back in that state.

Is there a framework employers should use when preparing a plan for bringing employees back to work?

Notwithstanding states’ and localities’ invitation to reopen businesses, employers still need to proceed safely and efficiently. Bringing employees back will be a process, not a single event. Here are the key points.

  1. Return in phases. Do not bring everyone back at once. Start with key or essential employees whose functions are vital and cannot be done remotely and screen them before entering the building or facility. Screenings can include symptom checks (temperature, observing behaviors like coughing or sweating, asking about loss of smell or taste, etc.) and/or serological tests for antibodies, once such testing is more widely available and more affordable. Add successive groups of employees in phases with sufficient time in between as to gather data, review it and make changes, if necessary. Give employees an opportunity to provide doctor’s notes identifying them as at-risk, and try to bring those folks back last.
  2. Rethink all logistics with social distancing in mind. How many people can be on an elevator at once with appropriate social distancing? Will the time required to screen and reduced capacity to move people require that work day start times be staggered? Which job functions must absolutely be done in close quarters, and which ones can be done with more distance? Is there an ample supply of personal protective equipment for job functions that will be done in close proximity? Will onsite daycares need to reduce their capacity, or will additional space need to be dedicated to onsite daycares? Does the cleaning crew have enough of the right sanitization chemicals, and is the cleaning crew trained in sanitization?
  3. Educate, educate, educate. Whatever the plan is, employees need to fully understand it in order for them to execute on it. Employees like being kept in the loop, and active communication can keep them engaged. Also, hygiene has never been more important, so take the opportunity to educate employees on proper hand washing techniques, sneezing/coughing techniques, etc. This is not a drill, folks.
  4. Be prepared to change. It’s called the “novel” coronavirus for a reason. It’s new, and a lot is still not known about it. Recommendations from authorities will change over time, and in addition the leadership of the company will learn new things as the workforce is brought, slowly, into this new normal. The temptation for leaders to keep doing what they first announced so as to appear more in control is natural and strong; leaders must resist it and be prepared to change as they learn new things.
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