If You Have The Option To Keep Working From Home When Your State Reopens, You Should

  • Most states in the U.S. have begun the process of reopening for business.
  • Many locations are reopening in phases, starting with businesses that can operate outdoors while still practicing social distancing.
  • Experts recommend that anyone who is given the option by their employer to continue working remotely take advantage of that.
  • Workplaces may function very differently compared to pre-pandemic operations.

If you’re one of over 316 million Americans who waited out weeks of stay-at-home orders, you’re probably feeling excited (or worried!) to hear that the majority of U.S. states are beginning to reopen for business.

This leads to a bunch of questions: When your area reopens, will you be able to go back to work right away, or will you have to wait for a certain “phase”? How will owners of restaurants, shopping centers, schools, offices, and other workplaces ensure you and your fellow employees are as safe as possible? And when your workplace does reopen, do you *have to* go back (you know, if you’re actually loving the whole WFH thing or worried about your safety)?

As you can imagine, getting back to work will look very different depending on where you live, how the COVID-19 situation evolves, and the industry in which you work. If you’re feeling up in the air about everything, you’re in good company—this is new territory for everyone, including business owners.

So, if you’ve got the back-to-work jitters, take a deep breath and read on. Here, medical experts weigh in on everything you need to know about going back to work during COVID-19.

Please tell me: When can I get back to work?

As of May 12, most states have at least partially reopened, which means you *might* technically be back to return to work in some capacity very soon if you haven’t already heard from your employer. That being said, the rules for getting back to work vary vastly from state to state (and even in different cities and counties).

Why? After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent reopening guidelines to the White House, the novel coronavirus task force thought they were “overly specific” and released their own three-phase guide to reopening the country. It’s pretty open-ended, which means governors and local leaders are free to basically make their own decisions on how to move forward, including when and how different types of businesses can open.

Many areas are opting for phases of reopening, beginning with businesses that can run while still promoting social distancing outdoors, such as state parks, construction sites, and recreation areas like golf courses and camping sites. Typically, the last businesses scheduled to open at full capacity are bars.

There are many factors to take into account as states reopen, such as how many people are infected and hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, whether hospitals can handle a surge in cases, the likelihood of crowds of people developing, and the ability to monitor COVID-19 through testing and contact tracing (or getting in touch with people who have been in contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19 and enforcing quarantine to reduce the spread of the virus), says Robert Amler, MD, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College and former chief medical officer for the CDC.

In order to go back to work in an as-safe-as-possible situation, you want a two-week decline in novel coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in your area. The problem: Most of the states that have reopened so far haven’t had that. As such, many infectious disease experts are concerned that the infection rate and death rate will increase sharply very quickly, warns Yvonne Michael, ScD, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health.

What this means for you: “Back to work” might not mean “back to work for good”—you could be in for future waves of social distancing and working from home if there’s a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in your area, says Dr. Amler.

Of course, even if your place of work is back in business, you still need to consider your personal health status, too, says Michael. If you’re part of an at-risk group, you’re best off working from home as much as possible, so don’t be afraid to ask your employer about special accommodations, per the White House reopening guidelines.

What will returning to work during COVID-19 look like?

There’s no one-size-fits-all scenario for safely getting back to work during the novel coronavirus pandemic, but the key is to block the virus from spreading at every opportunity, notes Dr. Amler.

In order to go back to work in a safe-as-possible situation, you want a two-week decline in novel coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in your area.

For many workplaces, that will mean having employees come back in waves based on health status, staggering work hours to reduce contact, and closing off common spaces. Expect to keep following the rules you’re already used to in public spaces like wearing a face mask, keeping 6 feet between you and other people, washing your hands frequently, disinfecting surfaces often, and not coming in if you feel sick. You may also have temperature checks and questionnaires to screen for symptoms of COVID-19 when you show up for your shift.

Here are a few changes to be prepared for (or ask your employer about before you head back):

  • If you work in an open-office setting, you’re in a particularly problematic setting for easy spread of COVID-19, so you might need plexiglass shields separating your workspaces and staggered work hours to reduce contact with coworkers, says Michael. Best-case scenario: WFH, she says.
  • If you work in a restaurant, bar, or retail, expect more drive-thru, drop-off, and curbside services, plexiglass shields at spaced-out cash registers, and signs or floor tape marking proper social distancing for checkout lines. You’ll also need to space out tables, reduce the amount of people allowed per party, and stick with outdoor seating if you can, she says.
  • If you work at a school or childcare center, expect staggered start and end times for school days, no more school assemblies or crowded events, spaced-out desks, and increased ventilation measures (like open windows), to name a few, per the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO).
  • If you typically work behind a computer or laptop, you might be able to make the switch to WFH long-term. Facebook, for example, is allowing most of their employees to work from home through 2020.

The main thing to remember: It’s still important to continue social distancing even as you go back to work, says Dr. Amler. After all, that’s our best tool in the battle against the novel coronavirus.

What if I’m worried about going back to work?

Honestly, whether or not you go back to work is a highly personal decision you have to make based on where you work, your trust (or lack thereof) in your employer, and your risk of exposure or severe complications if you catch the virus. It’s important to be cautious, says Dr. Amler. If you have permission to keep working remotely from my employer after social distancing guidelines are lifted in your area, it’s worth taking advantage of that option.

“If you can keep working from home, you should,” says Michael. Even if you’re not at high risk, you might come into contact with someone who is in your workplace, whether that’s a customer or coworker. And even if you feel perfectly well, it’s easy to spread COVID-19 without even knowing it, considering symptoms of the virus can take days to show up. Until we have a vaccine, everyone is at risk of catching COVID-19, so it’s best to stay in as much as you can—even if that means many more Zoom calls in your future.

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