Panel Advises Safety and Planning When Reopening

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic shutdown have created an environment of caution as companies start to reopen to the public. Leaders from the insurance, legal and financial industries say that for a successful reopening, business owners should be cautious with their planning.

In the first of the four-part Survive, Adapt, Transform virtual panel discussion, panelists discussed the challenges they’re facing in their own companies as well as those faced by their clients. Tim Petrey, managing partner at HD Davis CPA; Nils P. Johnson Jr., of Johnson and Johnson Law Firm; and Jim Klingensmith and Brian Battaglia, president and vice president, respectively, of L. Calvin Jones Insurance & Surety Bonds joined Jeff Leo Herrmann, CEO of The Youngstown Publishing Co., on the conference.

Short-term planning has become the biggest challenge for most of the clients at HD Davis, Petrey said. With the exception of clients who felt minimal impact from the shutdown, Petrey is working to help its clients retool some of their plans and get back to work.

“Defining what short- and long-term are anymore has been quite the challenge,” Petrey said. “We’ve tried to keep a lot of our plans within the 10-day forecast so that we’re not trying to go too far out beyond that at this point and time.”

The idea is to keep an eye on how things adapt, he said. As the economy reopens, each industry presents its own set of challenges, which makes it difficult to set two- or three-month plans, he said. While business might be slow for some companies, for others “it’s faster than ever,” and each situation requires a different type of planning.

“I think it’s safe to say that six months is about as long term as it gets at this stage,” Petrey said.

When making plans for reopening, safety for employees and customers must be paramount, advised Johnson. What it boils down to, he says, is thinking about how somebody might sue the company if they allegedly get sick while at the place of business.

“To do that, you have to think about how the law of negligence works,” Johnson said. “When you’re negligent, the law says you have violated a duty that you owed to somebody to take reasonable care not to cause them injury.”

Business owners who are found negligent in that duty can be forced to pay, so foreseeability is something that must be thought of in terms of common sense, he said. During a trial, a jury of “regular folks” will review the situation and see what steps were taken to keep employees and customers safe.

Those steps can include educating employees on best health practices – including hand hygiene and wearing facial coverings or masks – allowing for flexibility with work schedules, encouraging vulnerable to work remotely, establishing and documenting a systemized program of disinfecting and cleaning, and opening the windows if possible to let the fresh air in to help reduce transmission of the coronavirus, he said.

Johnson advised business owners to follow guidelines from the Ohio Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the latter of which breaks guidance down according to specific industries.

Being stringent on safety and cleanliness is important because if a business owner is found to be negligent, business insurance won’t necessarily cover them, noted Klingensmith.

“There’s a difference between ‘negligent innocent’ and ‘negligent on purpose,’ ” Klingensmith said.

Negligent innocence, he explains, is a situation where a business owner does his best to keep things clean and follows the guidelines and best practices for safety, but someone still gets sick after being in that place of business and sues the company.

Negligent ‘on purpose’ is essentially when a business demonstrates “willful wanton” disregard for the guidelines.

“It’s a matter of is the insurance going to work or are you going to be calling Nils Johnson,” Klingensmith said. “It’s established by the Department of Health what you should be doing to reopen.”

And those steps should be communicated and expected of vendors who also come into a place of business, added Johnson, so they’re not “undoing the good work you’ve done.” Once practices are established, business owners need to communicate their efforts to customers “so they have confidence to continue to come to your law firm or continue to do business with you,” he said.

Fortunately, there is “a lot of positivity” in the business community, Klingensmith noted, and he’s been surprised at how many people want to get back to doing things face-to-face. To accommodate that, L. Calvin Jones follows safety procedures, keeps its front door locked to walk-in traffic and requires visitors to call to gain entry, he said.

“We’ve been out on new client visits and everybody seems to be pretty relaxed and just happy we’re getting back to some new way of life,” Battaglia added.

In addition to safety, finances must be taken into account as companies reopen, adds H.D. Davis’ Petrey. While the Payroll Protection Program “has been a rollercoaster, to say the least,” an extension to the program granting businesses 24 weeks to spend the assistance, up from eight weeks, will give businesses more flexibility in their reopening plans, shifting to “long-term viability, getting back to work and figuring out what the real impact of this is,” he said.

However, business owners are still required to get back to their full-time equivalent head counts, he said. So, if a company receives a $100,000 loan and spends $1 million on payroll over the 24-week period, “if you didn’t return to your full-time equivalent count, you’re still going to be subject to, and potentially facing, some reductions to your loan forgiveness,” Petrey said.

To be safe, Petrey advises all recipients to treat Payroll Protection assistance as something that must be eventually paid back, and loan forgiveness “as a bonus more than anything else,” he said.

“That way you’re still making good solid business decisions in all of this,” he said. “What happens in the next six months will define how you start off” in 2021.

For more, watch the video above.

Three more Survive, Adapt, Transform panel discussions are scheduled for 7:30 a.m. on June 17, June 24 and July 1. Click here to register. To submit questions for the panelists, send an email to resources@business-journal.com.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.