In the early months of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted wide-sweeping shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders across the United States. Now, as parts of the country look to start relaxing these strict measures, small business owners need to think about what's next and how they will adapt and move forward safely and sustainably.
COVID-19 has impacted every business differently. Some were able to shift to a remote work model, while others adjusted operations or closed their doors entirely. Factors that have impacted businesses' timelines and their abilities to resume "normal" operations include:
- The status of any existing stay-at-home orders in their state(s) of operation.
- The severity and volume of COVID-19 cases within their locale.
- Whether the business has a physical location.
- The ability to enforce proper social distancing (at least six feet between individuals) within the business location.
- The level of contact with customers and other employees (e.g., beauty salons and gyms with direct physical contact vs. retail stores and restaurants with indirect contact).
One thing is true across the board, though: Every business will face tremendous challenges as our nation begins the path to recovery, while still facing the public health threat of the virus.
When brick-and-mortar businesses are able to reopen their doors, consumers may be wary about being in an enclosed space with other individuals, regardless of the health and safety protocols in place. Even digital businesses that have remained fully operational may find it difficult to boost sales with so many customers facing lost or limited income.
The businesses that will survive and thrive are the ones that can be flexible and adaptable to consumers' new and evolving needs. You'll need to plan carefully and understand not only what may need to change about your business, but what new growth opportunities may exist for you in a post-pandemic world.
In this guide, we'll walk you through the steps your business will need to take to reopen as restrictions are lifted across the country. While your exact reopening strategy will depend on your home state and business type, you can use this playbook as a starting point to help you plan and prepare for the "new normal."
There's a lot of information out there about COVID-19, so you'll need to focus on the most reputable, reliable sources to find the right guidance for your business.
Government agencies and public health organizations are best places to find accurate, updated information for businesses that are looking to reopen. We've compiled a few key resources to help you get started.
Federal guideline resources
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has become one of the most widely referenced resources on COVID-19. Aside from general public health guidelines for reducing the spread of the virus, the CDC has also created several dedicated landing pages providing coronavirus guidance for businesses and workplaces and how to prepare your small business for the effects of the pandemic.
- Guidelines for Opening Up America Again. While President Trump has left reopening plans up to individual state governors, he has unveiled a three-phase set of guidelines for states to follow, based on the advice of public health experts. Understanding each phase may give you a better understanding of where your state currently stands and what the requirements are for moving on to future phases.
- Coronavirus.gov. The White House's official coronavirus website is a hub for all official government resources on coronavirus for the American public and its businesses.
- OSHA has also issued guidance for returning to work.
- Your state's official government website. State governments have been working hard to keep their websites up to date with the latest coronavirus-related guidance and regulations. There are several places to find the appropriate links to your state government’s homepage and departments, including usa.gov and irs.gov.
- Your state or governor's official social media accounts. Many states and their governors operate official accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. In recent months, these accounts have been largely dedicated to real-time updates on coronavirus statistics and executive orders. Be sure to look for the blue "Verified" checkmark next to the account name to ensure it's a legitimate page.
Within some states, individual counties and cities have set further restrictions or different guidelines from the overall state. This is especially true in major metropolitan areas with dense populations. If your business operates in a major city or highly populated county, you'll want to check your city or county's official government website to see if there are specific guidelines to which you need to adhere.
- CDC. The CDC has created individual guideline documents for numerous industries that are uniquely impacted by COVID-19, including educational institutions, public health/healthcare professionals, veterinary clinics, retirement communities and more. You can view and search all CDC guidance documents here.
- American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA). The AIHA has also created detailed industry guidelines for sectors like at-home service providers, construction workers, gyms, salons, retailers, restaurants and others as they plan their return to work. As a professional association for occupational health and safety science professionals, the AIHA has developed all guidelines for its Back to Work Safely initiative with special industrial health considerations in mind.
Creating your reopening plan will require a lot of internal and external assessment of multiple factors that could impact your success moving forward. Here are a few important things you'll need to consider:
Throughout the pandemic, individual states and regions have been tasked with determining their own guidelines for stay-at-home orders and business closures. Some states have even delegated certain decisions to the county or city levels, which may make it difficult for businesses with multiple locations to create a company-wide reopening plan.
Depending on the type of establishment you operate, your state may develop industry-specific policies, based on best practices and recommendations from public health officials and the federal guidelines for reopening America. For instance, your state may mandate strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols, as well as require employees and customers to wear face coverings in your location and also in your industry.
By understanding your obligations under your state's regulations, as well as the generally accepted guidelines for your industry, you will be able to craft a reopening plan that instills trust and confidence among the individuals who interact with your company.
As a business owner, your primary concern should be the health and safety of your employees and customers. All places of business, including shops, restaurants, construction sites and offices, must take precautions to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 on-premises.
Here are some considerations as you develop your new safety policies in the post-coronavirus workplace:
General hygiene practices
- Think about how you can best reiterate and enforce the CDC's guidelines for proper, frequent handwashing and coughing/sneezing into a tissue or elbow when employees return to work.
- Assess your business's current cleaning and sanitation practices against the CDC's recently released recommendations. What procedures can you implement or upgrade to reduce the spread of the virus, and how can your staff help maintain those practices? This may include sourcing and stocking up on cleaning products and sanitizers for employee use during work hours.
Personal protective equipment (PPE)
- If your business was subject to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's general requirements for employee PPE use, make sure you continue to adhere to those guidelines when you reopen.
- If your state has issued requirements for your employees and/or customers to use face masks and gloves on-premises, have a plan in place to enforce that regulation and provide PPE to employees if at all possible. Otherwise, you may wish to encourage employees wear cloth face coverings in the workplace, per the CDC's official recommendation.
- Consider how your current workspace can be reconfigured to encourage social distancing if telework is not possible. The CDC recommends installing physical barriers, changing layouts to put at least six feet of distance between work stations, closing communal spaces, staggering shifts and breaks and refraining from large events.
- According to LifeLabs, you may wish to consider limiting the number of employees in the workplace and alternating teams to further encourage social distancing.
Employee health monitoring
- Develop a plan for monitoring your employees' health, with a particular focus on COVID-19 symptoms.
- Decide how you will handle a positive case of COVID-19 in your workplace after you reopen. OSHA’s guidelines give specific steps on how to manage and isolate employees displaying COVID-19 symptoms.
- Reiterate your sick time and paid time off policies to employees and discourage them from coming to work if they feel ill.
If your business has been able to operate remotely during the crisis and plans to continue this arrangement long-term, cybersecurity will need to be a top priority. Coronavirus scams are rampant, and your employees are the first line of defense against hackers.
You may have put ad-hoc security solutions in place like Virtual Private Network (VPN) access, but if employees will be working from home on a more permanent basis, consider the technical infrastructure you might need to ensure the security of your sensitive business and customer data. This may include banning personal device use for business purposes, limiting company-wide file access, making password managers mandatory, implementing multi-factor authentication and training (or re-training) employees on cybersecurity best practices.
As part of your post-COVID-19 communications, you'll need to set clear and accurate expectations with those who interact with your business.
Assess your business needs
Once you've determined the new precautions and protocols your business will need to follow, it's time to consider your operational needs. From limited funding to supply chain disruptions, you may encounter a few challenges as you seek to ramp up your core business activities.
Ask yourself the following questions to help you get a better picture of what you might need to get things moving again:
What does my business need right now to survive?
The biggest obstacle most businesses are facing as they plan to reopen is financing. Even businesses that have remained partially open during the crisis have likely seen a hit to their revenue, and many now need help covering basic expenses like rent and utilities before they can ramp back up.
Look at your numbers and figure out the bare minimum you need to get things going again. Then, consider federal and state financial aid resources like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), disaster assistance loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the employee retention tax credit available under the CARES Act.
What will my initial staffing requirements be when I reopen?
If you're one of the many businesses that had to lay off or furlough employees during the crisis, you may not be able to bring them all back at their full capacity right away. Consider whether you can offer limited hours to the majority of your pre-pandemic staff, or whether it makes more sense to have a few key individuals on for their regular hours, while slowly re-expanding your employee base as business picks up again.
What employee concerns about workplace health and safety will I need to address?
As a small business, your staff will be a critical part of your recovery, so it's important to let them know you will take their safety seriously when you reopen. Clearly communicate all plans and policies you develop regarding PPE and employee health monitoring and take the time to answer any questions and concerns from your staff.
What will my customers’ needs and demands look like now and in the foreseeable future?
Your customers' lives have all been impacted by COVID-19, and they may need different things from your business right now. Their disposable income is likely limited right now, so get creative and think of how you can help solve the challenges they're facing at this point in time. This may be as simple as changing your marketing messaging, but some businesses may need to reposition or update their core offerings to fill the needs of their market. Either way, Salesforce recommends rapidly innovating your products and services to better meet immediate customer needs.
What's possible for my business?
The reality is that most businesses will not simply be able to "pick up where they left off" when they reopen their doors. Based on your current available resources and potential funding sources through coronavirus aid programs, make a thorough, honest assessment of what might be feasible for your business in the following areas:
- Your budget. How much capital can you access, and how can you best put that money to use?
- Your space/location. Can your physical space be adapted to encourage social distancing?
- Your supply chain. What do your supply chain vendor relationships look like right now? Would it make sense to look for any new vendors to help you meet short-term needs as you reopen?
- Your products/services. How can you pivot your offerings to be relevant to your customers' needs right now?
- Your revenue impact. What is the scope of your coronavirus-related losses right now, and how much do you expect to recoup once you're fully operational again?
Your business will likely need to communicate plans to several different audiences, and each one requires a tailored approach to ensure the right message is received.
As part of your post-COVID-19 communications, you'll need to set clear and accurate expectations with those who interact with your business. Your employees, customers and vendors will need to know what to expect from you as you execute your reopening plan.
Follow these tips to communicate with your business's various stakeholders throughout the process:
As the people who help you serve your customers, your employees need to be kept in the loop about your business's reopening plan. According to Cushman & Wakefield, your employee communication plan should provide thorough, accurate information about physical workplace changes and safety measures, as well as set appropriate expectations for following new procedures. Use multiple communication channels (email, chat, video, social media, physical displays in the workplace, etc.) and invite any questions they may have after you share your plan.
A few important things to address:
- Details of the changes, including any actions taken in their absence to sanitize and prepare the workspace.
- New work practices and guidelines for health and safety.
- How you will transition policies such as remote work, time off and flexible schedules if they had been adjusted during the pandemic.
- Resources available to employees if they have questions or concerns.
During these difficult times, customers understand and expect that your business will be operating differently. However, they still expect transparency and timely updates as you establish a path forward. EY advised companies to follow these best practices when communicating with customers:
- Use multiple channels to ensure your message is widely received and reinforced.
- Demonstrate that customer interests are a priority and address their concerns directly.
- Create and share an FAQ document outlining specific questions around your supply chain, your health and safety practices and potential risks to your customers if they continue to patronize your business.
- Reach out to affected customers and offer assistance where appropriate.
Take time to meet with each of your vendors and partners to review your agreements and contracts. If you plan to continue working together as your business reopens, let them know what (if anything) might need to change about your working relationship, and whether it's possible to adjust your arrangement. Salesforce recommends co-creating business continuity plans with your partners and suppliers to help both of you streamline operations.
Regardless of your audience, make sure your message to each is consistent and clear across every touchpoint and channel.
With your planning and preparation complete, it's time to put your reopening strategy into motion. Follow these steps to set yourself on the right track for getting back to business.
Develop a time frame
Because states are rolling out their reopening plans in phases, it may be difficult to nail down a precise timeline for your reopening. According to the CDC, businesses should only consider reopening if they meet the following conditions:
- You are in a community that no longer requires significant mitigation.
- Reopening would be in compliance with your state and local orders.
- You are ready to protect employees at higher risk for severe illness.
As you develop your time frame for reopening, here are a few steps you can take to make a smoother transition:
- Get input from your team. If your business is customer-facing, ask your staff for their thoughts and concerns about interacting with customers in the near term, given the current circumstances in your state. Some staff may be eager to get back to work, while others may feel more comfortable waiting a week or two for an additional drop in COVID-19 cases.
- Plan out an anticipated schedule of pre-opening tasks. From deep-cleaning and sanitizing to rearranging furniture to encourage social distancing, make a list of everything you'll need to do to get your business customer-ready.
- Coordinate with your vendors. If you've been shut down, start reaching out to vendors re-establish your supply chain and administrative support. If you've been operating in a limited capacity, plan ahead for how your inventory needs may increase as business picks up.
- Give your customers a heads up. Even if you don't have an exact date for reopening yet, stay in touch with your customers and let them know to stay tuned for an upcoming announcement.
Lay out your marketing strategy
- Assess your competitors and how they're handling marketing. Study both local competitors and ones in other regions where the COVID-19 situation may be different. It's important to get a broad range of marketing and communications examples and gauge whether customers are reacting positively or negatively.
- Create an updated marketing strategy that reflects your customers' current needs. Successful marketing in the COVID-19 era means shying away from overly promotional messaging and speaking to the current reality and experiences your customers are facing.
- Use your marketing channels to communicate important reopening announcements, changes and information your customers will need to know. Stay on top of your website, blog, email lists, social media channels and other platforms to deliver a consistent message about your business's plans.
Be ready to adapt to any obstacles
- Anticipate and prepare for challenges. No matter how prepared you are, you may find that some elements of reopening your business are more difficult than you expected. You may need to change directions quickly and make swift decisions to overcome obstacles.
- Check in with your employees. During your first few weeks of operating "normally" again, frequently chat with your staff and see how they're feeling. See if there's anything you can do to make their jobs easier or give them greater peace of mind about their health and safety.
- Know that you won't get it perfect on day one. Mistakes may happen as you execute your reopening plan, and that's OK. If something goes wrong, quickly acknowledge the situation and let employees and customers know how you're making it right.
- Create formal and informal processes for getting feedback. Listening to your employees, customers, vendors and partners during this time is critical for your future success. Have one-on-one conversations, share polls on social media and send out anonymous surveys via email to encourage your stakeholders to share their thoughts.
- Analyze your sales data, customer behavior and ROI. Your numbers likely won't bounce back right away, especially if you've changed your product or service offering. Keep an eye on your business analytics to understand what's working and what's not.
- Gauge the overall community response. Pay attention to what customers are saying about you (and your competitors) as everyone adjusts to your industry's operational changes. Take customer suggestions seriously and always acknowledge anyone who mentions your business directly.
Respond and pivot your strategy accordingly
- Make adjustments based on the feedback you receive. Your employees and customers may be feeling apprehensive and nervous right now, so it's more important than ever to meet their needs. Do what you can to adjust your operations in response to stakeholder feedback.
- Communicate evolving changes in a timely, transparent manner. Let people know what's happening and why. If appropriate, give credit to the employee or customer who inspired the change so your audience knows you're listening to them.
- Continue mapping out your road back to normal. Normalcy is not going to happen overnight. In fact, "normal" for you moving forward may look very different from what it looked like pre-pandemic. Your journey back to the volume of customers you had before may take time, but all your business can do is keep learning, growing and evolving as new information becomes available.