No matter how the actual risk of COVID-19 is ultimately interpreted, the way people engage with each other and the marketplace will be forever changed. We all remember 9/11 and since then have modified how we live. The same will be true for COVID. As states begin to reopen, those places where people naturally gather will need to address consumer confidence around safety and manage the risks that will arise as citizens are once again free to gather.
How long will people be mindful of physical distancing? Will people feel uneasy when too many congregate in a limited space? And while consumer confidence is important, what about the confidence of businesses amid the liability risk of opening? You can bet the lawyers that advertise on TV late at night will hawk their services to people who claim they contracted an illness from visiting a business that allegedly did not create a safe environment. Call it the viral version of the banana peel on the floor accident claim.
Government’s regulatory response might require occupancy limits to a set percentage of the fire code limit, or permit only a defined number of people per square foot. In contrast, and in addition to government-initiated financial support, legislation providing the marketplace protections from COVID-based liability claims will also be important. There is a political call to hinge federal financial assistance to states on states’ adopting these type protections. The best way to kill a recovery is to expose businesses to unmanageable litigation, closing businesses and costing workers their jobs. And insurance is not an easy answer. Complicated legal questions arise surrounding the availability of insurance coverage for liability stemming from a pandemic.
Those politicians who are unwilling to provide at least some level of liability protection are really waging an assault on the American worker. While businesses should not get a pass to be as reckless as they want to be, there must be some exercise of reason and diligence, that if undertaken will shield them from frivolous claims.
Apart from regulatory restrictions and liability protections, businesses will need to act in a way that communicates responsibility as a good steward of their customer’s safety in order to restore confidence. It will require a careful balance by business not to accommodate the most fearful among us to the detriment of the less fearful.
Managing traffic flow within a business will be one way to minimize exposure. In the retail context, for example, there are several analog-type measures that could be employed to manage traffic flow, including one-way aisles and removing unnecessary displays. However, there are digital technologies that could advise a business as to which portions of the store are more heavily trafficked. Not only would this help the store manage congestion, but the technology could also help people plan their shopping journey as they enter a store. Why run straight to the toilet paper aisle when that might be the most congested place in the store?
iViu Technologies has developed a system that gives a digital heads-up that a particular space may be trending toward overcrowding. “Not only is the technology combination innovative, but the need is critical,” said Chris Turner, iViu’s CEO. “Just knowing how many people are in a building can give a false sense of security. The ability to monitor occupancy in specific zones within their facility will give the companies critical information they need to minimize congestion, providing a healthy and safe environment for staff, visitors and customers, as well as better understand staff utilization, inventory distribution and physical layout opportunities.”
There are other technologies that could help create a safe environment. Surface cleaning and air purification technologies are available. Other technologies can help people find and opt-in for places that meet their personal acceptable balance between safety and common sense.
The most significant keys to a successful reopening of the economy are public confidence and an adjusted view of risk management. In order to build consumer confidence around health and safety, public gathering spaces will need to adopt a what’s best for the user (consumer, patient, participant) approach rather than what easiest or least risky for the provider. The marketplace will need to reimaging risk management to address new risks that now exist. And, states will have to create a legal environment that doesn’t spell defeat before we get started. Like 9/11 changed the way we travel, this pandemic and the fear among some for the next one will change everything else.
Wayne Allen is a principal at IE Advisory focused on innovation as it relates to insurance and risk management.