The Federal Coronavirus Task Force issued a three-stage plan last week to reopen the economy, where authorities in each state – not the federal government – will decide when it is safe to reopen shops, schools, restaurants, movie theaters, sporting arenas and other facilities that were closed to minimize community spread of the deadly virus. Once phase one is adopted in certain states, businesses that reopen will need to be prepared to take certain precautions to meet their common law duty to provide and maintain reasonably safe premises.
The first stage of the plan will affect certain segments of society and businesses differently. For example, schools and organized youth activities that are currently closed, such as day care, should remain closed. The guidance also says that bars should remain closed. However, larger venues such as movie theaters, churches, ballparks and arenas may open and operate but under strict distancing protocols. If possible, employers should follow recommendations from the federal guidance to have workers return to their jobs in phases.
Also, under phase one vulnerable individuals such as older people and those with underlying health conditions should continue to shelter in place. Individuals who do go out should avoid socializing in groups of more than 10 people in places that don’t provide for appropriate physical distancing. Trade shows and receptions, for example, are the types of events that should be avoided. Unnecessary travel also should be avoided.
Assuming the infection rate continues to drop, then the second phase will see schools, day care centers and bars reopening; crowds of up to 50 permitted; and vacation travel resuming. The final stage would permit the elderly and immunologically compromised to participate in social settings. There is no timeline prescribed, however, for any of these phases.
Once businesses are reopened during phase one, there are several common sense and intuitive safety practices that business owners/operators must absolutely ensure are in place to meet their common law duty to provide a reasonably safe environment for those present on their premises.
The guidelines issued by the CDC are the core protocols that form the baseline for minimal safety precautions: persistent hand washing, use of masks/gloves and strict social distancing.
Given the highly infectious nature of the virus, the fact that it is capable of being transmitted by asymptomatic people who are nonetheless infected, and the apparent viability of transmission through recirculated air or via HVAC systems without negative pressure (per a recent report from China about transmission from one restaurant customer to several others via the air circulation system), there is nothing that reasonably can be adopted that will effectively and readily ensure that a business is completely free of someone who is infected and capable of spreading the virus.
As such, additional measures are advisable beyond the CDC protocols, such as robust cleaning/hygienic regimens/complimentary wipes and hand sanitizer for common areas, buttons and handles; and the necessary protections for employees who interact with the public (e.g., shielding and protective gear for checkout clerks at the supermarket or lobby desk/check-in personnel in hotels and office buildings). In addition, it would not be unreasonable or unduly intrusive to check the temperatures (via no-touch infrared devices) of those entering the premises. In the absence of available portable, instant and unobtrusive virus testing methods, temperature readings are the most practical and reasonable precautionary measure beyond the CDC baseline deterrents.
Conscientious and infallible implementation of maintenance, housekeeping and hygiene protocols for the commercial, hospitality, retail and restaurant industries also will be critical to mitigate potential liability claims for negligently failing to provide an environment reasonably safe from the spread of coronavirus.
Advisability of Warnings
Aside from conspicuously publicizing – via posted signage or announcements – the CDC guidelines relating to persistent hand washing, use of masks/gloves and strict social distancing, the need to warn of the potential for – or a history of – infections generally is not considered to be necessary or essential unless there is an imminent threat of a specific foreseeable harm.
Unless there is a specific condition leading to a cluster of infections within a particular property (unlikely given the ubiquity of the disease and community spread, but the reporting would be to the CDC or local health authorities in such an instance), or an isolated circumstance that can be identified to be the source of likely infections to others who proximately were exposed, there is no need or obligation under existing law or regulatory guidelines to report generally that someone who tested positive for the virus may have been on a particular property.
Moreover, unless the business is an employer who administers a self-funded health plan (who are thus charged with the duty to maintain “protected health information”), businesses that are not health providers are not subject to HIPAA; as such, concerns about HIPAA violations are misplaced to the extent that the identity of someone who is infected is somehow disclosed or otherwise required to be disseminated by a business not otherwise charged with the duty to maintain “protected health information.”
A Coordinated Approach
While the CDC’s guidelines are important, they are not exclusive. Businesses planning to reopen also should consider regulations and guidelines from a number of other sources, including OSHA and state and local departments of public health.