How to Respond to the Coronavirus Threat

Look to the CDC and Local Health Authorities to Guide Your Response              

2/25/2020 – – The outbreak of the coronavirus has become an expensive crisis for corporations around the world.

Apple warned this week that due to the disruption of its supply chain as well as diminished manufacturing and consumer activity in China, the company does not expect to meet its revenue guidance. Mastercard, citing declines in “cross-border travel, and to a lesser extent cross border e-commerce growth,” told investors that first-quarter revenue will be 2-3 percent lower than previously projected. Disney’s stock has taken a hit in response to the closing of both its Hong Kong and Shanghai Disneyland Parks. And major cruise line companies, including Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, have predicted “material impact” to their 2020 earnings because of virus-related cruise cancellations.

Is your company or organization vulnerable to negative impacts and costs from the coronavirus? The answer is yes — both your bottom line and the health of your employees are at risk.

It’s hard to find a consumer or industrial product that has no component manufactured or sourced in China. The ripple effect of struggling Asian economies will find its way into ours. Restrictions on international travel will hurt our tourist industry, create problems for colleges, and delay critical business transactions. Economic impact on some level is inevitable for just about everyone. And you should take the time to identify ways to mitigate this financial/operational downside.

But what about the human health risks? Even if the virus never becomes an epidemic in the United States, you still need to be prepared. Remember an important point made in The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm: Reporters covering a crisis ask three threshold questions to judge a company’s role as a villain or a victim — what did you know, when did you know it, and what did you do about it? Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you are well aware of the coronavirus and the likelihood of its continuing spread. Earlier today, a senior official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised:

It’s not so much a question of if this will happen any more, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

So, you know about it. What should you do about it?

I advise my clients to visit the CDC’s website and review their “Interim Industry Guidance” (linked below) on the best response to the coronavirus threat. In addition to regularly updating the status of the outbreak, they offer pragmatic tips under the headings: “Recommended Strategies for Employers to Use Now” and “Planning for a Possible COVID-19 Outbreak in the US.”

For example, they suggest companies “emphasize staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees.” Getting out ahead of an outbreak, they recommend, “explore whether you can establish policies and practices, such as flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts) to increase the physical distance among employees.”  And they emphasize that organizations should “engage state and local health departments to confirm channels of communication and methods of dissemination of local outbreak information.”  

As I say in my book, a crisis is a terrible experience to go through alone. Don’t try to be an expert on public health issues. In designing your response and advising your employees, take full advantage of the experts available to you nationally and locally. Use their language as much as possible, citing them as the authority for your information. Not only will this improve the effectiveness of your response, it will also provide welcome legal protection.

Excellent free guidance is also available from the company providing your health care plans. Just like they regularly send out advice on exercise, diet and lifestyle, they have valuable, comforting information for your employees concerned about the virus. Make sure that is available to everyone.

Regardless of the path the coronavirus takes, demonstrating an awareness of the threat, adjusting your policies where it makes sense, and staying current with CDC and local health department guidance will protect the success of your business and the health of employees. And it will keep you out of the “villain” column should a reporter one day inquire as to what you knew, when you knew it and what you did about it.

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