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CDC weighs in on COVID-19 reopening with decision trees

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The six decision trees target workplaces, restaurants and bars, mass transit, schools, childcare, and youth programs and camps.

In the aftermath of widespread controversy over the White House’s purported disagreement with what was said to be robust, detailed COVID-19 guidance prepared earlier by the CDC, which is yet to materialize, the CDC has released six single-page decision-tree checklists for reopening different sectors of American life.

The decision trees for workplaces, restaurants and bars, mass transit, schools, childcare, and youth programs and camps all caution that it’s important to check with state and local health officials and other partners in order to determine what actions are most appropriate, while also adjusting to meet the unique needs and circumstances of the local community.

Three-step process. The three step-process provides checklists to answer three questions relevant to determining whether reopening (or extending service for mass transit) is appropriate:

1. Should you consider reopening (or increasing full mass transit service)?
2. Are recommended health and safety actions in place (to the extent locally possible for mass transit)?
3. Is ongoing monitoring in place?

If the answer to all of these inquiries is “yes,” then the entity is ready to open and monitor (or increase and monitor mass transit service). Where the answer to the first question is “no,” the entity should not reopen (or increase mass transit service). As to the second and third questions, where any checklist safeguard is not met, these safeguards should be met before reopening (or increasing mass transit service).

Workplaces. For employers, the workplace decision tree is instructive, though lacking in detail and nuance. Similar to other decision trees, the workplace checklist inquires at the first step whether reopening is consistent with applicable state and local orders, and whether the employer is prepared to protect employees at higher risk for severe illness.

Health and safety checklist. At the second step, employers are led through a checklist of health and safety actions that should be in place:

  • Promote healthy hygiene practices such as hand washing and employees wearing a cloth face covering, as feasible;
  • Intensify cleaning, disinfection, and ventilation;
  • Encourage social distancing and enhance spacing between employees, including through physical barriers, changing layout of workspaces, encouraging telework, closing or limiting access to communal spaces, staggering shifts and breaks, and limiting large events, when and where feasible;
  • Consider modifying travel and commuting practices. Promote telework for employees who do not live in the local area, if feasible; and
  • Train all employees on health and safety protocols.

Ongoing monitoring. At the final step, employers must meet a series of ongoing monitoring criteria:

  • Develop and implement procedures to check for signs and symptoms of employees daily upon arrival, as feasible;
  • Encourage anyone who is sick to stay home;
  • Plan for if an employee gets sick;
  • Regularly communicate and monitor developments with local authorities and employees;
  • Monitor employee absences and have flexible leave policies and practices;
  • Be ready to consult with the local health authorities if there are cases in the facility or an increase in cases in the local area.

The lack of detail, for example, as to exactly what employers should do when an employee comes to work displaying COVID-19-like symptoms is troubling for many stakeholders. The checklist seems to imply that employers need not take any definitive action—beyond encouraging the employee to stay home—in order to protect coworkers (or the public) from coronavirus infection. There appears to be no requirement for contact tracing, either.

Restaurants and bars. The decision tree for restaurants and bars lays out a similar protocol, but lists different social distancing measures, including to enhance spacing at establishments by encouraging drive-through, delivery, curb-side pickup, spacing of tables/stools, limiting party sizes and occupancy, and avoiding self-serve stations; and restricting employee shared spaces, and rotating or staggering shifts, if feasible.