April 11, 2020
In Search of Ideal
At some point in the near future, when businesses are allowed to reopen, the customers filing through their doors will be changed thanks to the current outbreak of COVID-19. Much of this change will manifest as a new awareness of the cleanliness, or lack thereof, of their surroundings. There will be new technologies becoming available. Safety protocols will improve and become natural with practice. Some businesses (and customers) will go above and beyond in pursuit of safety, and others will do the minimum.
Of course, there will be guidelines and mandates to follow, there already are. While a venue may choose to raise their bar no higher than mandated, they could sink in the public’s regard when compared with those who do more. All else being equal, it is likely that most of us will choose to patronize businesses that offer the highest standards for assuring staff and customer safety.
Whether those measures be point-of-sale screening, enhanced personal protection equipment, temperature checks at the door, a combination thereof, or another take entirely remains to be seen. But it’s fair to expect that a business truly operating with safety as their highest ambition would be valued highly by customers.
However, there are practical concerns for even the most dedicated venue owners and operators. Each safety measure available will have different arguments to be made for and against its use in varying venues. Testing, both antibody testing for immunity, and viral testing to screen out infected patrons would at first glance seem like the ideal option. But that doesn’t mean it is practical or appropriate for every business. The same is true of personal protective equipment.
Although both employees and customers need to be safeguarded, what is best for one group in terms of efficiency and cost might not be ideal for the other. If we are looking at a fast food restaurant it makes perfect sense, both ethically and economically, to test the immune status of employees. An employee who has a sufficient number of antibodies to be considered immune, who also has a strong safety protocol behind them will be a significant asset. But until we have a vaccine, antibodies come from exposure. Does that mean that those who have not been exposed should not be working? Or does it mean that precautions of all types need to be available and chosen on a case by case basis?
Consider point-of-sale testing. While an additional cost of, for example, forty dollars per test could reasonably be added to the cost of a cruise to ensure the health of everyone aboard, the same cannot be said of a movie theater. For businesses with lower per transaction revenue, the expense of testing each customer at the door would be prohibitive for both the business and their clientele, whether directly or indirectly incurred.
While high personal protective equipment standards would be more appropriate and cost effective for some venues such as bookstores, and other retail businesses, in other cases some types of will not be appropriate. For movie theaters or restaurants, where food and drink are part or all of the experience, masks are clearly an issue. Health is not the only reason that safety protocols should be gold standard. People go out to enjoy themselves. Feeling safe enough to relax will be an inextricable part of that enjoyment going forward. We need to explore how to efficiently protect people while keeping their experience as enjoyable as possible. The thought of eating popcorn in the dark with gloved fingers is joyless.
On the other hand, if one shop on the block has safety protocols that exceed what their neighbor’s, are they setting themselves up for future issues? If the assurance of higher safety standards regarding virus control results in increased patronage, is a business positioning itself to shoulder the blame if something goes wrong? Will offering a higher standard mean higher vulnerability? These questions need to be addressed so businesses can reach their pinnacle of safety smartly. When exploring what will become mandate verses what additional protections might be advisable, it is important that small business be part of the discussion.
Options to protect businesses legally should be part of what we explore as we move forward with legislation pertaining to COVID-19. While being able to prove where one picked up a virus seems unlikely, there are those who are quick to assign blame even when there was no fault. It seems unlikely that a one-hundred percent guarantee of safety is going to be possible, at least for the foreseeable future.
Ethically, we must do the best we can with what we have. Businesses are ethically required to provide the safest space possible for their customers, but they have to look after their own interests as well. When a person voluntarily participates in a risky activity such as trampoline class, or skydiving, they sign a waiver. If dining out or going to a nightclub are going to become extreme sports, perhaps waivers are part of the solution. Should a system of zoning go into effect, it is possible that such waivers could be dealt with on that level.
There will also need to be discussion on how non-compliance should best be handled. Refusing service is well and good, but keeping people safe from a virus is trickier than enforcing, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” If safety protocols are to be effective, they must be properly executed and enforced. Businesses will need to be vigilant about ensuring their employees follow protocols to the letter, but they also need recourse if a patron is out of line either intentionally, or not. To do that well, venues will need legislative support.
The bottom line is, ethically, each business should strive for the highest level of customer and staff safety at their disposal. Upcoming legislation needs to protect the population, but it also needs to protect the businesses that strive to serve that population. Legislative standards should be high, but should also be adaptable. We need to explore and develop as many options as possible, because the COVID-19 outbreak is fluid, and will eventually need to be addressed in a more precise way. There may not be a protocol that works for every situation, but to anyone who knows otherwise, please drop us a line.