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From sick leave to social distancing, how businesses are adjusting to life in a pandemic
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Lowe's customers visit the Shallowford Road store Thursday April 9, 2020, in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

If you’ve left your house to go shopping in the last couple of weeks, you’ve probably noticed a few changes in local retail chains.

Publix has installed plexiglass walls to separate customers from cashiers. At Lowes, social distancing squares dot the checkout lanes, helping shoppers stay six feet apart while waiting to pay. Target has reserved the first hour of shopping every Tuesday and Wednesday for higher risk patrons, such as the elderly, pregnant women or those with pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. Many other retailers have set up similar shopping times for those patrons.

Most businesses are taking some sort of action to keep employees and customers safe, but that’s about as far as the constants go. 

The CDC has provided guidelines on what measures businesses should take and the Governor’s Office has followed up with some regulations to enforce those guidelines, but specifics are difficult to come by. 

The CDC and U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration have released employer guidelines for maintaining safe work spaces, asking businesses to switch to curbside or drive-through service where possible, increase sanitation procedures and keep employees at least six feet apart from each other at all times. 

Gov. Brian Kemp’s statewide shelter in place order echoes those guidelines, requiring employee workspaces be at least six feet apart. The order allows flexibility, advising businesses enhance “sanitation of the workplace as appropriate” and provide personal protective equipment “as available and appropriate.”. 

Local retail chains have implemented a variety of measures based on the recommendations and requirements. 

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Lowe's customers load their purchases Shallowford Road Thursday April 9, 2020, in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

Many stores have begun limiting the amount of customers allowed to enter a location at one time, and have adjusted hours to close early and give employees time to fully sanitize stores every day. Home Depot has canceled all spring promotions in an effort to decrease foot traffic in stores, according to corporate communications spokesperson Margaret Smith.

Jeremy Pizzolato, manager at the Gainesville Lowes on Skelton Road, said in addition to placing social distancing squares in lines to keep waiting customers six feet apart, the store has also started making PA announcements every 15 minutes to remind shoppers to keep their distance from each other and store associates. The adjustments have helped to ease customer density, according to Pizzolato.

“Everything seems to be working really well so far,” he said.

The CDC has also recommended businesses amend sick leave policies to make them “flexible and consistent with public health guidelines.” The organization mentions that employers should not require a positive COVID-19 test for workers to take sick leave, but employers are not required to follow the recommendations. 

Publix has implemented 14-day paid sick leave for all employees who either test positive for COVID-19 or have come in close contact with someone who has, according to media relations manager Nicole Krauss. Home Depot has gone as far as to dispense 40 hours of extra paid time off to part-time employees and 80 hours to full-time employees, with those numbers doubling for associates who are “at higher risk as determined by the CDC.” According to the CDC website, this includes “older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions.”

When it comes to dealing with employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 or come in contact with someone who has, most businesses deferred to governmental guidelines, but federal and state regulations on the topic have been varied and changing. 

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Lowe's customers visit the garden center Thursday April 9, 2020, at the Shallowford Road store in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Georgia Department of Public Health requires all workers who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or who have exhibited symptoms “including fever, coughing and shortness of breath” to stay at home in isolation. The CDC’s initial stance was that all employees who have tested positive or have been in contact with someone who has tested positive should remain at home. But in an April 8 amendment to that, the CDC allowed for essential workers who have come in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 who are not exhibiting symptoms to return to work provided they regularly monitor their temperature, wear a mask at all times in the workplace, sanitize areas around them regularly and maintain six feet of distance from all other employees and customers. 

The amended guidelines were put in place “to ensure continuity of operations and essential functions,” as the burden of employees missing work was starting to take its toll on essential businesses.  

Non-essential businesses were given a separate set of rules to comply with in the governor’s shelter in place order. 

The order advised that all “non-critical infrastructure entities” may remain operational so long as they adhere to the social distancing rule and meet the definition of “minimum basic operations.” The social distancing rule prohibits more than 10 people gathering in one location unless there is at least six feet of distance between people at all times.

Minimum basic operations are defined as the minimum necessary activities to maintain the value of a business, the minimum activity organizations need to get done to facilitate other employees working from home, and any instances where employees are working outdoors without regular contact to other persons. 

Is your employer unsafe?

To file a complaint about workplace conditions that may be putting employees at risk, go to There you can either file the complaint online or download and print a form. You need to include as much information about the business as possible and a detailed description of the complaint. You may choose not to have your identity revealed to your employer. Be truthful — knowingly filing a false complaint is a crime.

As vague and varying as business safety guidelines have been, enforcement is just as difficult to pin down. 

Businesses that refuse to comply with any measures in the governor’s shelter in place order “can be cited or shut down” according to an email from Governor’s Office Director of Communications Candice Broce, though no more details were provided on how those businesses would be identified. 

Michael D’Aquino, Georgia regional director of public affairs for the U.S. Department of Labor , said via email that OSHA employees have been employing “all inspection and investigation protocols available to support the mission of protecting worker safety and health” adding that all personnel have access to the appropriate PPE to continue carrying out that job. 

D’Aquino added that the organization has identified most unsafe workplaces through OSHA’s complaint system, which can be accessed either through the OSHA website, the mail or by phone.

“OSHA has handled thousands of complaints, referrals, or rapid response investigations (RRIs) by directly contacting employers and facilitating prompt actions to address alleged hazards,” he wrote.

Clarity on what businesses have been doing and are required to do to keep employees and customers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult to come by, but most government organizations seem to agree that distancing and sanitizing are crucial in stemming the spread of the virus. 

Without more definitive guidance, the burden of prioritizing safety over level of operation has fallen largely on the businesses themselves. 

Concerned employees who believe their employer is not doing enough to ensure their safety can file a complaint with OSHA here