Last Saturday night, Simon Rusk got a call.

One of his employees had received results of their COVID-19 test: It was positive.

“Scary. I think that’s the best way to sum it up. It was scary for everybody,” Rusk, owner and head brewer of The Livery in Benton Harbor, said this week.

But Rusk credits all of the procedures the business had put in place with preventing the virus spreading to any other employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, but many people are back in their workplaces now trying to live the “new normal.”

With that new normal has come pre-work health screenings, new illness tracking platforms, work-from-home options and a lot of sanitizing/hand-washing.

A new routine

Julie Thomsen, who owns both the Biggby Coffee and Zoup! in St. Joseph, said the employees there have been diligent about disinfecting the spaces every 30 minutes to make sure they are keeping their customers and employees safe.

“I also have seen many of our community restaurants being very diligent in keeping our community safe and have spoken to a few owners on how they are handling things,” Thomsen said. “It has been very helpful to have that support from our franchise business offices and our restaurant owners, as we are all in this together.”

Per executive order, all workplaces in Michigan are required to do health screenings of their employees before they start their shift each day.

“There’s lots of safeguards in place to limit someone who’s sick and infectious to spread the virus to other people,” said Gillian Conrad, spokesperson for the Berrien County Health Department (BCHD). “Someone that’s symptomatic shouldn’t even be working that day.”

When a COVID-19 exposure happens at a workplace, the state recommends shutting down the area the employee was in for 24 hours, to sanitize, but there are no rules stating that the business must close completely.

Rusk said they closed The Livery completely for four days to clean, and to get COVID-19 test results back for other employees who had close contact with the employee who tested positive.

Conrad said closing completely is a business decision, though she understands exactly why it’s done and why a handful of businesses in the area have done this.

“Not having been through that situation before and not being sure exactly what to say to all of your staff or to your customers can be tough,” she said.

Thinking outside the box

Some area employers have gone above and beyond state orders and recommendations when it comes to monitoring their employees for illness.

Williamson Employment Services in St. Joseph has expanded its telephonic nurse triage that they normally use for work-related injuries. Employees can now call the nurse triage if they are ill, or feel they have symptoms of COVID-19, to get advice from a medical professional.

Judee Hopwood, president and co-owner of Williamson Employment, said the nurse makes recommendations about returning to work, staying home, self-isolating or seeking treatment, which they can then implement.

“It puts the medical decisions in the hands of someone qualified to make them, rather than us trying to figure out the best way to handle each situation. It is also free of charge to employees, so they can use it without concern over cost,” she said.

Julia Gourley, executive director of the Krasl Art Center, said they have been very thoughtful about how its staff works, how they manage potential COVID symptoms and updating their sick leave policy.

A few of their strategies have included the health screening each day, with employees staying home until cleared by a medical expert if they get flagged.

In addition, the staff continue to work from home 50 percent of the time or more if possible. They’ve also implemented new COVID-19 sick leave for all part-time and full-time employees.

Arthur Havlicek, president and CEO of the Southwest Michigan Regional Chamber, said the chamber itself has instituted a number of preventative measures, on top of guiding chamber members through the process.

He said with only two staff members, it’s been relatively easy to monitor for potential symptoms, but they’ve instituted a flex work schedule to limit time they are both in the office.

While most of the chamber’s networking events remain virtual, it did hold an in-person Business After Hours outside at Schroeder Furniture two weeks ago, where a number of safety precautions were taken for volunteers and guests.

“I actually have an entire COVID-19 Event Planning Guide that I created,” Havlicek said.

It includes infrared temperature checks, COVID-19 symptom screenings, no-contact check-in, visual cues indicating attendee’s comfort level, a full sanitation of the venue before the event, hand washing stations spread throughout the venue, proactive data gathering for potential contact tracing, voluntarily limiting the size of the gathering, a virtual component for those who can’t attend, plus a mandatory mask policy for all attendees.

Back2WorkSafe

One of the ways BCHD officials thought outside of the box on their COVID-19 response was with the development of a website platform that allows employers to track employee illness.

The Back2WorkSafe platform is free to any employer in Berrien County and doesn’t record any identifying information, only aggregate totals.

“We’ve been doing this process within our school and daycare population for years,” Conrad said. “Schools and day cares across the county report on a weekly basis the number of students that they had sick that week.”

She said this allows the health department to monitor for any outbreaks of the flu, and highly contagious illnesses such as gastrointestinal norovirus, whooping cough, chicken pox or measles.

“We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could see this at the adult level. How do we do that? So that’s where we are trying to get employers to buy into Back2WorkSafe,” Conrad said.

She said it helps the employers and the health department.

“If all of a sudden you have five people in accounting that are sick, that might be a problem you might want to look into a little bit further,” Conrad said.

Havlicek said the chamber has been huge advocates for the Back2WorkSafe platform, even helping to pilot it.

“It’s not only free and convenient for business owners, it’s an important tool for the health department as they work to curb the spread of the virus in our community. Every business in Berrien County, large and small, should utilize this resource,” he said.

Conrad said about two dozen employers are using it so far and it’s working well.

Executive orders in Michigan right now require workplaces to report COVID-positive cases within their staff to the health department within 24 hours.

Conrad said employers can do that through the Back2WorkSafe platform.

The health department gets a notification for each Berrien County resident who tests positive, but the extra layer of reporting helps identify out-of-county employees.

Conrad said employers also can suggest their employees get tested for COVID-19, especially if they’re calling in sick more than one day in a row.

She said when a health department employee calls in sick they don’t pry into their personal lives, but try to get a feel for what symptoms the person is having.

“We just ask if it’s COVID-19 related symptoms or no. We leave it at that, and if they say yes, then we monitor them pretty closely. If there is really more than one day of those symptoms, then we’re saying, we want you to go get tested,” she said.

When to get tested

Conrad said an indication someone should get tested for COVID-19 is if they are displaying any hallmark symptoms – fever, sudden onset of a cough or shortness of breath, or a sudden loss of taste or smell.

Though Michigan health officials say anyone working outside of the home should be tested for COVID-19, Conrad said there’s no real recommendation for how often to get that test.

“We are still focused predominately on people who might be feeling symptoms and those with a known exposure to a confirmed case,” she said.

Rusk said in the case of the Livery employee, they weren’t having symptoms, but just got tested because their friends were.

When that test came back positive though, some employees then got tested who had close personal contact with that person.

“Close contact is 15 minutes or more within a 6-foot space,” Conrad said. “So it’s pretty prolonged.”

She said when you think about a restaurant server, they’re not spending 15 minutes or more at the table.

“They might not even spend 15 minutes or more in the kitchen. They’re moving around. The chance for a waitress to spread illness to a table is very slim, especially because all those people in an enclosed space should be wearing masks to contain their respiratory droplets.”

Conrad said because the virus takes a few days to build up to show up positive on a test, folks who think they have been exposed to COVID-19 should work with the health department on quarantine and testing procedures.

She said something to keep in mind is the recent slowdown of people getting test results back.

“There has been an influx of people getting tested and I think that’s due in part to this message of going to get a free test if you’re working outside of the home,” she said. “It’s not a bad thing, but it has definitely flooded the capacity that the labs have for processing those specimens.”

Going forward

Rusk said though having an employee test positive was scary, he’s thankful the procedures the business had in place worked.

“When this happened we took a hard look at what we were doing to make sure absolutely certain we’re doing everything we can,” he said. “We don’t have any other employees that have gotten ill or have symptoms or tested positive. I think that’s a testament to our procedures and how we have been handing the outbreak.”

Rusk said they did add a few more questions to their pre-shift health screening that are a little more specific to COVID-19 symptoms.

Conrad said this new world is really requiring employers to be more in tune with what’s going on with their employees.

The health department has been encouraging employers, and its own employees, to stay home if they are feeling any sort of symptom of illness, even mild ones.

“I think in this country we have this work ethic that doesn’t necessarily allow us to take sick days easily,” Conrad said. “I’ve heard all these people say, ‘Well I’m not on my death bed, so I can go to work.’ It shouldn’t require you to be on your death bed to take a sick day.”

She said this is especially important now that we know how quickly and easily COVID-19 can spread, even if someone only has mild symptoms.

“That’s why that health screening at the beginning of the day is so important and maybe just changing some of that workplace culture,” Conrad said. “Especially when the school year starts. When children may get ill or may need to be on quarantine. There’s just going to need to be a lot of understanding, a lot of flexibility, just a softening of that hardcore work culture that our upbringing in the United States may have instilled in us.”

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman