Use my team’s COVID-19 tragedy to help you make decisions for your business.
Craig LeBlanc is the Owner and GM of Allen Harbor Marine Service in Harwich Port, Mass.
Like many of you, I suppose, the coronavirus seemed like it was a million miles away. It was on the news but surely would soon be replaced by some other headlines. There were cruise ships quarantined in Japan, but that was halfway around the world. Then there were a few cases in Washington state, but, despite the fact that my brother and nephew live there, that still seemed a world away from my home and dealership here in Massachusetts.
The roller coaster ride we’ve all experienced with the rapid evolution of today’s circumstances have turned into a ride that’s heading down an increasingly steeper hill, gaining speed quickly and showing no signs of slowing down. Let me tell you our story.
Concerns about the spread of the virus at my dealership arose around the end of the first week of March. Casual and very general staff discussions preceded the e-mails from vendors and other businesses that were starting to modify their procedures in response to the virus. Our colleagues on Cape Cod began calling, emailing and texting to see if we were doing anything differently yet. I must admit that at that time I was still not overly concerned.
The State of Massachusetts announced that schools would close for two weeks on March 13th. My second-grade son would be thrilled, but this was when the concern really began to sink in for me, and we chose not to send our four-year-old to pre-school that next week.
Like in many states and provinces across North America, our state government then ordered all bars and restaurants to be closed. The e-mails, texts and calls kept coming in, and the headlines were getting worse.
Internally, we learned that an employee’s spouse, a nurse, was treating someone who had tested positive for the virus at our local hospital. Word spread through the company quickly, and you could feel the growing tension and concern among our employees.
The roller coaster was definitely heading down hill and picking up speed by the day.
Three customers stopped in on the 20th of March — one who was simply out for a walk and another who stopped to say “thank you” for selling his boat. The third was the son of a customer who had passed away over the winter, and while I distinctly remember wanting to shake his hand and pass along my condolences, the building anxiety over the virus caused me to stop a few steps away. I waved and said I was sorry about his father’s passing.
As a business owner, all I could think was that I wanted to keep our doors open. As a retail business owner, how could I survive otherwise? I just didn’t know what that could look like at that point. We held a company meeting at the end of the day, to let the team know that I was monitoring the situation, and for the time being, we would proceed “business as usual.”
As various states issued shelter-in-place orders for their citizens, we speculated that Massachusetts would soon follow suit. Our team conversation remained on my mind all weekend as the virus spread, the news worsened and the number of confirmed cases increased. Then, my 87-year-old father, who is my facility manager, run-around driver and babysitter amongst other duties, called me Sunday night to let me know he felt a fever coming on and probably wouldn’t be in on Monday.
I arrived at the office extra-early Monday morning, placing a note on the time clock and sending an email to our salaried employees, announcing a follow-up meeting first thing that morning. I made some notes of what I wanted to cover, knowing that by this time, several states had issued shelter-in-place orders for their citizens.
I told my staff I had made the decision to close to the public and that all deliveries should now be dropped off outside. Sub-contractors would be allowed in to the shops, as needed, and that everyone needed to practice proper social distancing, maintaining the recommended six-foot distance between each other. If they needed to work closer for a brief time, they were instructed to wear a respirator or N95 mask. They were also told to let me know immediately if they, or anyone in their household, was showing any symptoms of the virus. All were instructed to stay home if they had signs of any illness.
The mood was somber. There wasn’t any response to speak of. Other than my father, all 20 of my employees were there for the meeting within a 40-foot radius of each other.
Around mid-day, the governor of Massachusetts announced that as of noon the next day all “non-essential” businesses would be ordered to close for two weeks. I quickly found guidance on “essential businesses” online and noted three or four categories we fit into. In another team meeting at the end of the day, we discussed that we, like other marinas on Cape Cod, would remain open. Despite support from employees on the decision, I gave it a great deal of thought on the drive home that evening.
At 6:30 the next morning, Tuesday, one of my employees texted me to let me know that they and a friend she had recently spent time with had both developed a fever. I recommended she call her doctor right away, and because she had asthma, was able to get tested that afternoon.
I consulted with my controller and called an employment law firm I had worked with in the past. I wanted sound advice on how to proceed, as it seemed like things were changing minute-to-minute. We talked briefly and I learned the basics of the laws that would impact a situation like this from an employer’s perspective.
Around 9 a.m., a couple key employees came to me separately to let me know that they’d be going home at noon. They felt they needed to limit their families to potential exposure from being in public. My thoughts were extremely conflicted between the jobs we had underway and how I should respond.
I gave everyone Wednesday off, with pay, and I went into the office by myself. I reviewed notes from the call with the attorney and sent out a text to all of my employees: I was closing the business for the rest of the week, out of an abundance of caution, and they all would be paid from their PTO on the books.
I let them know that there was an employee who was showing symptoms of the virus and had been tested on Tuesday afternoon. The results would be known by Friday. It made me feel very uneasy to not be able to say who it was, as I knew they’d all be scared and wondering.
I remained in touch with her and my father over the next couple days. My father battled an up-and-down fever but no other issues. She, on the other hand, had lost her sense of taste and smell, was experiencing headaches and feeling lousy in general. She didn’t own a thermometer — and all the stores were out of stock — so there was nothing solid to go on there. I stayed in touch with both of them over the next couple of days. My father’s condition was relatively stable, while my employee’s was worsening.
I texted with her throughout the day on Friday. I offered to bring her groceries or supplies, but she said she was good. I made her promise she would call her doctor or 911 if she felt her condition begin to deteriorate. She agreed. The last text was around 6 p.m. I would never communicate with her again.
I sent her a text late Saturday afternoon to ask how she was feeling. Simultaneously, a friend of hers that knew she was ill hadn’t been able to reach her all day, so she went to her house. With no response to her knocking at the door, she called the local police to request a wellness check. They went into the house and found Julie Bradley deceased.
I was in disbelief and shock at the same time. What had happened? How could things have progressed so quickly? There were no answers to be had. I called all of my employees separately to give them this tragic news.
The next afternoon I was contacted by a health official to let me know that Julie had tested positive. I learned that Julie had Face-Timed with her doctor at 8 p.m. Friday and had been told she tested positive. I still don’t know what kept her from calling or texting me to let me know. I can only assume that something happened to her not long after that call ended.
The health official asked who had been in close contact with Julie at the marina between Thursday the 19th and Monday the 23rd. I couldn’t say for certain, so the decision was made that all employees would be quarantined at home until Monday, April 6th. The health official called each of them, talked about the situation and answered any questions.
Even though my father is 87, he had been unable to get tested, as he had no underlying medical condition. Because of Julie’s positive test, having been exposed to her, and because he was showing symptoms, he was now able to get tested.
Dad’s breathing became difficult Wednesday afternoon, and after consulting with his doctor he was admitted to the hospital. His oxygen level was very low, so he was given oxygen through both a mask and tubes right away. By the next morning, his oxygen levels had come back up, but later that day the decision was made to put him on a ventilator. X-rays show that there are patches of pneumonia in his lungs. I, along with my brothers and sisters, were able to speak with him on the phone for a short time before the ventilator was put in place. The ventilator is working well at this point but we have no idea what is going to happen. All we can do is pray at this point.
Julie Bradley was that invaluable, key employee we all long for. She’s the type of employee who is impossible to replace, even on a single day off. I can’t imagine what it will be like to operate without her, and by telling this story, I hope she can have an equally powerful impact on your business by helping you react wisely and confidently to this virus. She would want that.
I can’t give you advice. We all need to navigate this unprecedented situation the best way we know how. What I can tell you is that if you’re not taking this virus seriously, you need to. Yes, it’s going to hurt my business – and your business, too. That’s nearly inevitable. I don’t know what the future will hold for my business next year, next month, or even this week now that our team members finish their required quarantine and are allowed to return to our “essential business.” But at the end of the day, running a business is about taking care of our employees, our families, our customers and our communities. Particularly during this health crisis, as you consider each of those, the question I recommend you ask is: At what risk?
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