Photo: Pictured above, Chamber President and CEO Heather New speaks during a Business After Hours event prior to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on Gadsden and Etowah County. Photo courtesy of The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County held a COVID-19 Business Update and Preparedness Checklist Webinar on Tuesday, March 17 following the cancellation of the Infectious Disease Preparedness and Prevention seminar scheduled for Wednesday, March 18.
The webinar focused on how local business owners can develop preventative measures for their workplaces while maintaining a safe, healthy environment for themselves, their employees and customers.
Chamber President and CEO Heather Brothers New led the webinar, inviting small business employers from throughout the county to gain beneficial insight on how they can best combat COVID-19 and other illness that might affect the workplace. While The Chamber does not claim itself an expert on protocol, New collected information specific to small businesses from the Centers for Disease Control, Alabama Department of Public Health and Small Business Administration for the webinar.
New began with addressing prioritizing critical operations, suggesting that business owners evaluate what positions must remain staffed to maintain operations verses what activities can be modified or postponed. She urged that employers prepare for changes in business practices, identify alternative suppliers, prioritize customers and temporarily suspend some operations if necessary. With the recent school closures, New warned employers that absenteeism spikes are expected.
During this time, creating a communications plan is essential for small businesses to put measures in place to effectively notify employees of the latest company or organization updates through email, text, phone or a closed social media page. Establishing possible teleworking policies may also prove beneficial. New explained that reviewing human resources policies, exploring whether or not flexible worksites can be established, telecommunicating, canceling large work-related meetings or events and developing flexible work hours will assist in protecting businesses from the impact of a pandemic like COVID-19.
New stressed the importance of employers coordinating with external health officials like the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, Alabama Department of Public Health and the Gadsden-Etowah Emergency Management Agency before sharing any information on social media. To avoid the potential of spreading false information, individuals should consult trustworthy sources before posting anything.
“It is too easy to share a piece of information that we think may be true,” said New. “If [that information] did not come from a reputable site, please do not share it. We are trying to save lives and make sure that we do not overextend our healthcare system. We want to make sure we are not proliferating a problem.”
For most people, the immediate risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 is considered low. But older adults and individuals with underlying health conditions such as cancer, diabetes, lung disease, heart disease or compromised immune systems face a greater risk of severe illness if they contract the virus. Whether or not employers deem themselves as individuals who run a low risk of critical illness with COVID-19, their actions affect more than themselves.
“Consider your behavior and how your behavior will affect other adults who may be of age or may have compromised immune systems,” said New. “Consider your employees, customers, coworkers—all people you come into contact with. Be sure that your behavior is representative of the respect you want to see coming into your space and being around you and your loved ones.”
Practicing good hygiene is a major behavioral necessity, especially in the workplace. New emphasized that to ensure the health of individuals and others, all handshaking, elbow and fist bumps and side hugs must stop. New encouraged employers and employees to practice social distancing with greetings like a simple wave or “hello” from six feet away and recommended that employers remind employees to clean their hands after entering and exiting the facility.
Directing customers to hand sanitizer or hand-washing stations, washing hands regularly, disinfecting surfaces like doorknobs, tables and desks, handrails and light switches were all methods that New covered to help keep workplaces safe and clean. New suggested that workplaces avoid crowding to limit person-to-person contact, using booking and scheduling to stagger customer flow and implementing online transactions if possible. New urged employers to assess the risk of business travel and to find alternatives like video conferencing for meetings.
New introduced social distancing specials with businesses who partnered with The Chamber to provide curbside service, delivery and rapid pick-up for customers. She discussed the importance of handling food with extreme care and limiting food sharing between persons.
“Our restaurants are already implementing higher levels of care than they normally do,” said New. “Consider strengthening health screenings before employees arrive at work, asking questions like how do they feel, have they had any coughing or fever or been in close contact with anyone who has had a cough or fever. We do not know for certain how many days someone can be symptomatic. Just because your employee feels well, if they’ve been in contact with someone who has been infected or who is potentially infected, they could still share contamination.”
For individuals who feel sick themselves, New stressed that they remain home except to receive necessary medical care. Restricting activities outside the home, avoiding public areas like work or school and not taking public transportation are essential during the time someone is infected.
New listed COVID-19 symptoms as fever, persistent cough and shortness of breath. If an individual experiences these symptoms and feels that medical attention is required, he or she should call his or her health professional (primary care physician or emergency room) before arrival. Receiving advice on treatment before arriving at a doctor’s office or hospital is the best way to avoid infecting others and furthering the spread of COVID-19.
“[COVID-19] will heavily impact our healthcare professionals,” said New. “This is going to be extremely hard on them. What we need to do is take care of ourselves as much as possible so that those who are most sick and most susceptible get the first level of care. For most of us with healthy immune systems, we have the ability to overcome this illness through over-the-counter medication.”
While social distancing from human-to-human contact is essential, New recommended restricting contact with pets and animals if a person becomes ill with COVID-19. Though there is no current report that animals can contract COVID-19, while a person’s immune system is compromised with a sickness, he or she could become susceptible to other diseases that are transmitted from animals. Having another household member care for animals while the owner is sick, washing hands before and after pet interaction and wearing a facemask can help protect individuals and animals both from illness.
New covered state legislation and federal activity regarding COVID-19 such as the five-million-dollar budget amendment approved by the state legislature appropriated to the Alabama Department of Health to implement testing centers and cover expenses related to telehealth and costs for uninsured testing and treatment. The CDC awarded over eight million dollars to Alabama, the SBA developed the Economic Injury Disaster Program and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act HR6201 to fight the spread of COVID-19.
While state and federal authorities and healthcare professionals work to protect lives influenced by COVID-19, local businesses are taking the necessary steps to ensure that they too provide the utmost care for their community. The Chamber’s webinar provided business owners with beneficial tools that they can equip to ensure that their businesses remain functional and safe, encouraging the individuals who help their community thrive to overcome this challenging time.
“We recognize that you have a lot of tough decisions ahead of you,” said New. “We want to be sure that you know that we are here for you, that we care about you and that we’re in this together. We don’t take that lightly—we want to help you in any way that we can.”
For more information on recorded webinars, local businesses offering social distancing specials or federal and state legislation regarding COVID-19, visit http://www.etowahchamber.org/COVID19/.