As chamber professionals, we are a lot of things.
We are economic development gurus, event planners, social media strategy advisors, and therapists. But the one thing we’re not (unless you had time to get a medical degree) is virus and immunology experts.
Yet, with the coronavirus (COVID-19) being the hot topic at every dinner and investment table these days, it’s important for us to be disseminators of good information and conveners when necessary.
The chamber community is split about how we should handle this situation. While it’s affecting everyone in the world, the degree to which it’s happening at the moment of this writing varies.
With more tests available, the number of individuals appearing to be affected is bound to increase. People are prone to panic. The shelves in your grocery stores and drug stores may be the first signs you see of the actual illness.
How involved you get also depends on your community’s involvement.
Some communities, particularly large metro areas, may see declines in tourism and cancellation of conferences, not to mention supplies. We may all see an eventual erosion in consumer confidence but that may be a little too early to call.
Virtual is becoming a big deal. In fact, classes and exams at the University of Washington will occur virtually through March 20th.
Even really large conferences are considering virtual options.
Social Media Marketing World in San Diego chose to go through with their plans while The American Bar Association canceled its National Institute on White Collar Crime, which was scheduled for March 11-13 in San Diego.
Some people are frightened of large-scale meetings and events. As of this writing, there’s a 200,000-signature petition floating around encouraging the organizers of the music, film, and technology extravaganza–South by Southwest (SXSW)–to cancel its event in Austin, Texas, which drawers about 400,000 people to the area from across the globe.
UPDATE: Since writing this article, organizers behind SXSW have canceled the event for the first time in its 33-year run. The estimated impact of this to the Austin economy is about $350 million. The event site is now serving up weekly virtual sessions.
Even if the virus is not as virulent as some medical professionals have predicted (that is yet to be seen), the economic impact for some communities is undeniable even now.
Maybe the decisions you’re making at the chamber don’t involve 400,000 people converging on your area but they are weighty for your members and your communities nonetheless.
If you have chamber trips scheduled or larger events you may be wondering what to do. It’s likely some of your members are wondering the same thing.
There is no blanket answer for what’s right for your chamber and your community. Up until this point, we’ve all been affected differently. Some areas have a lot of people directly affected and others may not have any.
Advice for Chambers and Members in Regards to the Coronavirus
As a chamber professional, you have two main responsibilities.
First, making decisions for the chamber. You need to be asking if there’s anything to cancel on your end and should you be allowing employees to work from home. You may even be considering cutting down on your member business visits.
Your second responsibility is one of advisor to your member businesses. Many of them may be asking you what to do or looking to see what the chamber is doing. They may use you as the “canary in the coal mine,” basing their reaction and how they handle their business on what you and the local governments are doing.
During this time you will likely be called upon to walk a fine line between providing good information and inciting panic. You want to be known as a helpful source of information and not one who creates unnecessary concern among the already high-strung public.
As I mentioned earlier, there isn’t one right way to proceed.
What Can the Chamber Do?
Each community is at a different level of concern and need based on spread of the coronavirus. Also, what might be right for you right now from a communication perspective may change over the next month or two, or even the next few days.
It’s likely that this virus will have lasting repercussions on the business world. We’ve already seen it in the stock market. Since many of our products come from other countries, even after the virus wains, we may be waiting on things. In the short term, people in the community may become more hesitant to leave their homes or go to public places like malls, stores, and restaurants.
You can be there with accurate information and helpful tips. You may also want to use this time to run through scenarios. Even if the virus disappears overnight, consumer confidence will take a hit as will travel and imports. You may want to think about how you will help your businesses regrow after the virus runs its course.
Basic Precautions for Businesses
For businesses and communities who have no or very few cases of the virus, there are still basic precautions that can be shared as well as followed by your chamber. While some of these precautions seem obvious, they should be repeated and make great content for social media posts, memes, and infographics.
But don’t be all doom and gloom. People need to be prepared but their mental health might yearn for levity and pictures of natural beauty as well.
Some of these worthwhile tips include:
Wash Your Hands
Mom’s right. Do it often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, concentrating most of your scrubbing on your fingertips. If soap and water aren’t available, hand sanitizer can be used as well as alcohol pads or other forms of germ killers.
Keep Your Hands Away From Your Face, Particularly Your Eyes and Mouth
You don’t know what’s on them so keep them away from the areas where the contagion can easily be introduced.
Cough into a Sleeve, Not into Your Hand or the Air
COVID-19 is spread to the respiratory system, mainly via water droplets. When you cough, those water droplets are set free and you’d be surprised just how far those things can roam.
Get Good Rest
Again, your parents were right.
Getting good rest can ensure your immune system is functioning at its highest levels. This is not a time to run yourself ragged or become overly stressed in a situation that may impact your ability to rest. If you find yourself stressed about words like pandemic and seeing global maps with huge red spray, concentrate on something in your life that calms you. This could be a hobby, meditative practice, or spending time with friends and family. Remember fear and stress tax the body. This is a good time to practice self-care.
Wear Gloves in Public and Limit Personal Contact
Now is not the time to try to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the most fist bumps or handshakes in a day. A nice nod of acknowledgment is preferable right now. Even if you’re not worried about your own immune system, the person you’re extending your hand to might be.
Get a Flu Shot
The experts suggest getting a flu shot. Not because it will protect you from COVID-19 but because it will help health professionals eliminate the possibilities between whether it’s the flu or COVID-19.
Encourage Sick Employees to Stay Home
Don’t make any of your employees feel like their health or the health of your office staff, customers, vendors, members, and any other people who come in contact with your business is less important than their work.
While the symptoms vary with individuals, most of those who present with symptoms develop a fever. Encourage anyone who has a temperature over 100.4 to stay at home until they’ve been fever-free for over 24 hours.
You may also want to encourage employees with sick children, spouses, and other close relatives in the home to stay home as well. The virus can be asymptomatic, meaning a person can be carrying it without showing signs of infection.
- “Ensure that sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.
- Talk with companies that provide your business with contract or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.
- Do not require a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work, as healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.
- Employers should maintain flexible policies that permit employees to stay home to care for a sick family member. Employers should be aware that more employees may need to stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.”
Prop Open Interior Doors
Doorknobs and door surfaces are some of the most highly touched areas and a playground for germs. A simple touch can spread them. To avoid this, prop open doors wherever possible so people don’t need to be touching the door or the doorknob. Where it’s not possible, consider making a sign that encourages guests to use their arm–and not their hand–to push open the door.
Make sure your phone, laptop, and other touch screens are cleaned on a regular basis. if you have an iPad in your lobby for guest use, you may want to consider retiring that for the time being or placing alcohol wipes near it.
Your chamber may get a lot of foot traffic. If you have visitors in your lobby, you may want to consider limiting that. Again, this just depends on how deeply impacted your community has been. While closing the office doors may seem like you are not serving your stakeholders, a story of COVID-19 being spread by one of your infected employees is a lot worse an inconvenience to someone than not being able to get a brochure or in-person recommendation.
Canceling Events and Trips
Even infectious disease experts are having a hard time guesstimating when the worst of the virus will be over. If you have a chamber trip planned for this year you may be wondering what to do. Spend this time talking to the trip coordinator/company and some of the people who have signed up. You don’t want to put anyone’s health at risk. You can also check the CDC’s travel recommendations for individual countries.
While it might not be an easy decision, canceling sooner rather than later may mean you have the opportunity to reschedule or get some of your money back. Be open to options.
Stay Informed, Not Alarmed
It’s important to stay on top of the latest information about the virus. However, as mentioned earlier, if you start feeling obsessed about the situation and it’s negatively impacting your physical and mental health, step back from charts analyzing the spread and stop counting the cases.
Right now in the US, we’re in a testing phase. It’s likely our numbers are going to increase before they start decreasing. We’re looking for the illness so we’re going to find it. And as those test kits become available and more and more used, we will see numbers of sick rise. Don’t let that alarm you. Think of it as a natural progression toward the end of the virus’s life cycle.
In addition to these tips, you may want to encourage businesses to provide the following things at their locations and do the same at your chamber:
- Hand sanitizer. You may even have a chamber member who deals in essential oils or something like that who would like to contribute in exchange for a business card placed next to the solution.
- Tissues. It is cold and flu season after all. Make sure you’re prepared. You don’t want anyone feeling like they need to use their hand. It’s also handy to have a box of tissues near the toilet if you don’t have automatic flushing toilets. That way someone can grab a tissue and flush the toilet with their hand using a tissue to cover it.
- Alcohol wipes. If you have public areas that people touch a lot such as banisters or chair arms, have alcohol wipes to wipe the surface down.
- Lysol or bacteria-killing air spray. You can have these bottles available in your bathroom or in your main lobby. Whenever possible use brands that are unscented.
This can be a scary time and many of us are hearing contradictory information. It’s always best to get your information from infectious disease experts like the CDC and the World Health Organization. Your reaction and actions should be based on your location and how it is affected by the coronavirus. But whether you are mildly or majorly impacted, these basics lay a good foundation for the right types of precautions and safe behavior.
- Check out what other chamber pros are doing in this chamber pro conversation.
- ACCE’s Crisis Management: Pandemic
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration COVID-19
- Stay connected with other chamber professionals in the Chamber Pros Facebook Group where conversations around COVID-19 are a hot topic.
- Center for Health Security This series of videos runs through a John Hopkins-sponsored simulation from the Fall of 2019. This is NOT news and is not currently occurring. It is a possible scenario and not one for the faint of heart. This series of videos is for those who “enjoy” reviewing worst-case “what if” scenarios. It’s not one you want to share with your members since it plots potential outcomes only.
As chamber professionals, you’re leaders in your community. People will look to you for solid information. These pieces are a good start.
Update: As the national “shelter in place” has continued, it’s more important than ever for chambers to tell their stories … and their members’ stories. Here’s 7 stories you must be telling now during the coronavirus pandemic.
UPDATE: As of the end of May, many communities are opening up again. Will you be returning to your regular office or is it time to create a virtual chamber office? Here are some considerations.