Even when Omaha and Nebraska are ready to get back to business, for most of the region’s workers, it’s certainly not going to be business as usual.
Shuttered break rooms and common areas.
Staggered shifts to minimize worker contact.
And continued encouragement to work from home.
All are among the best practices being recommended by the Greater Omaha Chamber as regional businesses consider when and how to reopen their office operations. The suggested guidelines are part of an overall plan the chamber is promoting to help businesses and the Nebraska economy move on from the COVID-19 crisis toward recovery.
“With these tools and the invincible spirit of our businesses and citizens, we are optimistic,” said Tim Burke, CEO of Omaha Public Power District and chairman of the chamber’s board. “But we’re practical. Recovery will be a balancing act.”
Most businesses in the region are still likely weeks, or even months, from being able to implement even Phase 1 of the proposed reopening plan. But a chamber task force is also looking even further into the future, working on a strategic plan that’s designed to help the region thrive in the post-pandemic world.
That could include initiatives that would help the region take advantage of economic opportunities created by the deadly bug, such as manufacture of equipment or devices that can aid in the battle against it.
“How can the Omaha region regain what we’ve lost and accelerate more?” said James Blackledge, CEO of Mutual of Omaha.
Over the past two months, most businesses in Omaha and across Nebraska have significantly curtailed or even shut down their on-site office operations as part of the effort to keep the coronavirus curve from overrunning the state’s health care system.
Many businesses are now working on operational plans for how they will one day reopen. And a number of them have been looking for guidance.
“There are literally thousands of small- and medium-sized businesses out there attempting to navigate the situation on their own,” Burke said. “When should we reopen? How can I protect my people? What’s the next step toward recovery?”
That prompted the chamber’s creation of what it’s calling the “We Rise” economic recovery plan.
Burke said the chamber’s playbook will not supersede the guidance from the state and local health officials on when they can operate and how to do so safely. But it will help businesses tailor plans within that framework that work best for them.
Implementing the plan will also be guided by science.
The chamber plan utilizes PRAM, the Pandemic Recovery Acceleration Model that was developed by infectious disease and public health experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center to help the public and private sectors make decisions related to COVID-19.
PRAM provides a real-time snapshot of the status of the virus in the region. While PRAM’s status dashboard offers a number of benchmarks, David Brown, CEO of the chamber, said two of the measures that are particularly important to businesses are the number of new cases per day and the percentage of tests that are coming back positive.
“If those things are trending in the right way, then it might be safe to open up business again,” Brown said. “If they’re going the wrong direction and ‘in the red,’ then it might be time to pause on getting your employees and customers back in their places.”
At this point, PRAM appears to show that new cases statewide are flat at best, and in the Omaha region they’re continuing to rise. One of PRAM’s benchmarks calls for new cases in the Omaha area to be no more than eight per day. Right now, the area is averaging 195 a day.
That suggests it could still be some time before many employees will be green-lighted to return to the office.
But once they are, chamber officials said, businesses need to have both the guidance and supplies to do so safely.
Among the topics covered by the “We Rise” plan are employee screening — including possible temperature checks and use of a screening mobile app — and revised on-site practices and work spaces to promote social distancing.
In Stage 2 of the reopening plan, more normal business practices would resume, though vulnerable individuals would still be encouraged to work from home.
The chamber calls the third stage “We Thrive,” the time where the disease is under control and businesses can operate in a new kind of normal.
To help the region take advantage of that post-recovery phase, a chamber task force is studying what tools and resources could help accelerate the region’s job and economic growth.
That phase also could include assistance to help the unemployed get back to work or even upgrade their training, a way to ensure that future prosperity is broadly shared, said Carmen Tapio, who chairs a “We Thrive” task force committee.
Said Tapio, CEO of North End Teleservices, a North Omaha telemarketing firm: “We will put together targeted strategies to accelerate access to opportunity, so we can all get back to enjoying the quality of life we’ve worked so hard to create here.”