Questioning the risks, rewards of re-opening

Watch your step: The post-pandemic re-opening is a risky balancing act for businesses of all sizes, notes Mitch Maiman.

As an executive who grapples daily with phased re-openings and other issues of economic survival, testing is a major consideration.

There are treatises on this subject alleging to provide answers, but still way more questions.

First, let’s assume that a team wants to be socially responsible – that is, nobody wants to come to work sick with COVID-19, whether they’re showing symptoms or not. Let’s further assume that when we want people (or a subset of them) to return to work, we provide testing a couple of days in advance, giving everyone time to get the results.

What do we know after that testing event? Assuming 100 percent accurate testing, at best, here is what we know:

  1. People testing positive for antibodies have probably had it and are no longer considered contagious. One would assume such people can return to work and are generally safe, individually and to others.
  2. People testing positive at that moment, whether symptomatic or not, must quarantine until symptom-free. Assuming recovery, those individuals might then be able to return to work with low risk of infecting others. They would not need antibody testing, presumably – they should already have antibodies, though could be tested to confirm.
  3. People who test negative likely do not have the virus at that moment but are still susceptible. And some individuals can carry the virus and still test negative – these individuals have potential risk as both carriers and victims.

Mitch Maiman: Risk is his business.

The limitations of testing for this third class of individuals is obvious: The results could be obsolete within hours.

Real-time (or near real-time) tests are not practical for most businesses. Even if they were, managing this protocol presents major cost and logistical challenges.

I suggest we look at what the White House is doing. They test everyone who comes into the central office area every day (as the old saying goes, watch what they do, not what they say).

While such levels of testing are not a practical option for most business owners, we still want to protect our staff, protect their jobs, protect income and benefits and the business itself.

To do that, we must do a phased re-opening. We must take some risks and accept that statistically, there may be an impact on health outcomes. And it won’t be easy.

Everyone must wear masks – executives, managers, individual contributors, administrative and maintenance staff. We must provide space or barriers for those who come into the workspace (staggered schedules, especially in shared spaces, will be key).

Wash hands often with soap. Deep clean the workplace, at least daily. Avoid activities in the workplace that require mask removal, like eating and drinking. Provide for contact tracing. Maintain air filters and HVAC systems. The list goes on.

It’s important to realize that none of these things will guarantee that someone cannot catch COVID-19 at work. All we can do is drive down the probability to a point where the risk is reasonable.

If the goal is 100 percent assurance of safety at work, most businesses will never re-open – spelling disaster, especially for small business.

In New York State, the goal is not to trade lives for economic recovery. But if we want businesses to be able to re-open in order to provide salaries and benefits to most of society, there will be some risk to health and mortality.

Until vaccines and treatments are universally available in the quantities needed, we’re going to be dealing with COVID-19 or its derivatives. While there is cause for optimism, any scientist working in COVID-19 research will tell you there is no guarantee a vaccine will arrive in the near future, if ever.

We are left with more and more questions. And right now, the only answers lean toward opening sooner rather than later – with open acknowledgement and acceptance of the risks.

Mitch Maiman is the cofounder and CEO of Hauppauge-based Intelligent Product Solutions, a subsidiary of Florida-based Forward Industries.