The ongoing global health pandemic related to COVID-19 has rapidly expanded in Canada in the past week alone. As of this writing, there are 53 confirmed cases in British Columbia, a significant increase in just a single day. As the situation continues to evolve the effects are being felt at an alarming rate in a variety of ways by businesses across the province. As more and more industries announce shutdowns owing to the current crisis around COVID-19, what do business owners need to be thinking about?

The past few days have seen major industries such as professional sports grind to a halt with the suspension of the current seasons of the NBA, NHL and MLB. Further, major tourism destinations are shutting down across North America as well, from museums to amusement parks to Broadway shows. While each of these examples of industries that inherently involve large crowds, most businesses will have to face operational questions in the coming weeks, such as how to reduce the risk of infection to employees while maintaining staff sufficient to keep things running in the interim.

What Can Businesses Do To Protect Themselves and Their Employees?

First off, next to practicing diligent hygiene maintenance such as hand-washing, the next best step is for people to practice what is being called “social distancing”. This practice involves a conscious effort to reduce close contact between people and hopefully help to slow the community transmission of the virus. In practice, people are being advised to keep a distance of at least six feet away from others whenever possible.

For businesses with employees in close contact in an office, this certainly can prove to be a challenge. As a result, employers should consider implementing mandatory work-from-home policies for any employees who are able to do so. While obviously this is not feasible for every role or every business, reducing the number of people in a workplace will allow for more space to spread out and will help to limit the person-to-person contact for all employees.

The B.C. government has recently asked that people avoid any gathering of over 250 people. An obvious way to help limit social contact is to cancel or postpone any large meetings or conferences planned in the near future. In Ontario, a person recently contracted COVID-19 after attending a 25,000 person conference at the Metropolitan Convention Centre in Toronto. Events like this facilitate fast transmission and should be avoided if at all possible. For large meetings, such as all-employee meetings, consider postponing them or hosting them via web conferencing technology.

Health and Safety Concerns at Work

For those who do have to come into work in order to perform their duties, employers should try to provide items that can help facilitate health & safety. For example, providing items such as disinfectant and/or hand sanitizer, limiting or avoiding in-person meetings and encouraging employees to wash their hands regularly.

While B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has advised BC residents to avoid unnecessary international travel including to the U.S., it may be hard to contain that with March Break on the horizon. Any employer who has employees returning from an international trip should consider asking that employee to refrain from coming into work for at least 14 days after their return. This, of course, opens up a host of issues around income and payment – employers should do their best to allow the employee to continue working remotely during this time.

This situation is continuing to develop and will likely see even more change before things begin to return to normal. Businesses should stay on top of new developments and regulations in order to preserve the health of all employees for their own safety and for the best interests of the business as well.

At Cherkowski Marsden LLP we assist business professionals at all levels and across a wide range of industries. We advise our clients on a variety of issues, including internal policies and compliance matters. If you would like to speak to one of our experienced business lawyers, contact us online or at 250-308-0338 (Vernon office) or 250-803-9171 (Salmon Arm office) to schedule a consultation.