Businesses Balance Survival With Safety While Operating During Pandemic

Oct 1, 2020
Originally published on October 1, 2020 7:57 am

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order lifting coronavirus restrictions on businesses provides them with more freedom to operate at full capacity. But mask orders are still in place and some businesses will continue to balance fully opening with the need to protect employees and customers.

Those who serve people with health conditions that make COVID-19 more deadly know that to keep their businesses, they will have to gain trust.

At a SuperCuts in Oldsmar, store manager Marissa Segallos says a monthly visit to the salon is the only outing for some of her clients.

“I have a client tomorrow morning. She's coming with her husband and her husband has a lot of health problems, so if she feels sick even a little bit, she has a house in the back of her house, like they are doing social distancing themselves,” Segallos said. “So they are coming in early so they can avoid everyone else and leave quickly.”

Like other salons, SuperCuts has safety guidelines. Until the governor's order last week, the chain required online appointments and closed its lobbies, meaning customers waited outside or in their vehicles.

Now, walk-ins are accepted and customers can wait inside for their turn. But employees and clients still must wear a mask and extra cleaning takes place between appointments.

Joanna Patterson owns the Oldsmar SuperCuts and 11 other locations in the Tampa Bay area. The salons reopened in May after being ordered to close for about a month.

“We're very thankful that we're open for business right now,” Patterson said. “And so we're just hoping that there won't be another round of closures because it can be devastating. Because we didn't know how long we were going to be closed. We don't know how long this pandemic is going to last.”

Small-business owners like Patterson traditionally wear many hats, and the coronavirus pandemic has added a few more. Now, some play the role of public health enforcers, ensuring all customers are wearing masks. If an employee gets sick, they may have to do some contact tracing to determine who else may have been exposed. Some owners may even require temperature checks at the door, and most have become experts in cleaning products that kill the coronavirus.

Beth Milito, an attorney for the National Federation of Independent Business, said she often hears from nervous bosses, especially when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. She starts by calming them down.

“Don't panic. This is not, you know, the end of the world. Because sometimes I hear this panic: ‘Do we have to shut down for a week?’ No, no, no,” Milito said.

Milito suggests businesses put a plan in place to notify employees and customers who came in contact with the infected person.

She says employers worry about violating health privacy laws like HIPAA. But in general, the law only applies to health care providers and the businesses associated with them - not other employers. Still, other laws do protect an employee's health information, so Milito says privacy is key.

“Unless you have the employee who tested positive permission to share their name, you don't divulge who it was,” Milito said. “You don't say ‘Beth Milito tested positive.’ Instead, it's, ‘Unfortunately, we've had an employee who tested positive so we're identifying everyone who's been in contact.’”

And then there’s always the risk a business could get sued - by employees or customers.

It would be hard to prove where a customer who ventured out into the community came in contact with the coronavirus, said Kevin Johnson, a labor and employment attorney for Johnson Jackson PLLC in Tampa.

As for employees, Johnson said owners are generally protected by the workers' compensation system.

“It takes a lot for an employee to break a claim out of that workers' comp system and bring it in a regular court,” Johnson said. “You pretty much have to show that an employer was almost intentionally trying to injure you - was operating in the face of a very known risk and was very reckless in how they approached it.”

Johnson says the best thing employers can do is stay informed. Read government recommendations on websites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The bottom line for SuperCuts owner Patterson is her customers have to feel safe.

“The clients have to understand that we are doing everything possible in order to keep them and their families safe,” she said.

Otherwise, no matter what the state rules are, customers worried about COVID-19 will take their business elsewhere.

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