As Markham entered yet another COVID-19 related lockdown, I saw something in our showroom I haven’t seen in months, a man without a mask.
Seeing the full facial features of anybody but my wife and children was jarring enough to stop me mid-stride. My head shot back so quickly to verify this visual phenomenon that I looked like the hormonal star of a cheesy rom-com seeing a beautiful new girl walking the school halls.
I’m not sure if the client noticed my uncomfortable gawking but he was certainly prepared when I inevitably approached to ask if he had a mask.
“I have a medical condition,” he answered curtly, even before I could offer him a complimentary one.
I told him that was no problem and asked if I could view his doctor’s note.
“That’s private,” he sneered.
So there I was, for the first time since the pandemic began, being forced to choose between commerce and public health.
My first reaction in most direct confrontations with clients is to stand down. After all, it’s never a good idea to create a scene. But on this day, after taking an initial step away, something stopped me. I’m not sure if it was the tone of his voice, the determined set of his jaw or the general tension in the room but I was suddenly sure that the only condition the client was suffering from was obstinance. That might be acceptable in normal times but not in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century.
Although everyone in the showroom was generally well spaced out, the notable exception was our receptionist. She was trapped behind her desk, a mere metre away, her eyes darting around uncomfortably as she fiddled with her shirt sleeve.
“I’m sorry sir,” I said, breaking the sudden silence. “I’m afraid you may be making some of my staff uncomfortable. Please wait outside and I will send someone to assist you.”
“Look, I’m just here to pick up an ownership,” he retorted.
The whole interaction took maybe two minutes. But in those two minutes, I realized I had no moral high ground. The client was not new. He had in fact, already completed his business with us. I learned later that he had already been in several times before without a mask. I had never seen him and those that did either did not want to turn him away or felt they could not.
That is the fundamental problem conducting business during a pandemic, nobody is quite sure what the right thing to do is.
These are issues that haven’t been a problem in my personal life.
I begin my mornings by binging on all things COVID-19. I am up-to-date on all public health recommendations, even those that contradict previous recommendations. I have not went to any parties, social events or outdoor spaces where crowds may congregate. I haven’t even spent a mask-less minute indoors with anyone but my wife and children in months (despite the protestations of our extended family).
And yet, when an employee called one Monday morning to inform me he may have COVID, I regret that one of my first fears was what that meant for our dealership. That’s the Sophie’s Choice that every business owner is forced to make during the pandemic. Of course you care about the health of your employees but what is the right move? Do you shut everything down and minimize further exposure or do you succumb to the financial needs of operating a business.
The irony is that any decision had to wait until the diagnosis was confirmed. Even though all signs pointed our employee contracting the virus, I knew from a previous conversation with York Region Public Health that until someone has a confirmed diagnosis, life should continue as usual. In other words, there is nothing to worry about until there is something to worry about.
I thought I would be a conscientious employer and take proactive steps to mitigate our risks. I immediately contracted a sanitization company to deep clean of all our common areas.
My next step was mapping out other potential spreaders. Luckily, the employee last worked on a Saturday and felt perfectly fine. The Saturday shift is half staff with reduced hours. A win, relatively speaking. I advised any staff who worked on Saturday to monitor for symptoms and stay home if even the mildest ones presented themselves. I also offered a paid day off if anyone wanted to take a precautionary COVID test.
To pre-emptively determine any further containment measures, I turned to every layman’s best research tool—Google. Shockingly, there was a dearth of relevant local information.
My Google search of, “what should businesses do if an employee tests positive for COVID,” brought up nothing in Markham, Stouffville or even Toronto. The closest advice I could find was a two-page info sheet from Peel Region, about 45 minutes to the west of us. It essentially recommended that sick employees go home immediately and that anyone who came in contact with that employee quarantine for two weeks. But our employee wasn’t sick yet when he was working and there was very little agreement online about when exactly somebody becomes contagious.
The employee confirmed his positive test late Wednesday afternoon. As there was nobody else with symptoms and we had all been interacting normally for nearly three days, I decided the containment measures I took were sufficient and awaited further instructions from public health.
That call never came. The surging amount of COVID in our community meant it was impossible for overworked public health employees to trace each case.
By the end of the week, I was second-guessing myself at every turn. Every person I asked had a different opinion of what we should be doing. The most common responses were shoulder shrugs and variations of, “I think we should be okay.”
The thought of trying to fight the pandemic with only a bachelor of journalism and a car sales license to rely on finally overwhelmed me. I called York Region Public Health looking for reassurance that I had done everything by the book and that my staff were as safe as they could be.
The representative dutifully noted all pertinent details and dates. Although she was very sympathetic, there was also a harried undercurrent in her voice. When I told her I already had the store sanitized, she let out an audible sigh of relief. I was less relieved. I had assumed my initiative was an above and beyond measure, not a bare minimum response.
“And is everyone who was in close contact with the employee on Saturday quarantining at home for two weeks?” she asked.
“Um…no. But nobody has any symptoms,” was my sheepish response.
“Oh no!” she blurted. “They all have to go home immediately.”
I was quietly panicking. Had I done what I swore I would never do, choose business over health and safety?
“But some of them have already tested negative,” I said hopefully.
“It doesn’t matter, they can’t be at work.”
“How about masks?” I asked. “They were all wearing masks.”
“It still doesn’t matter,” she replied patiently.
I quickly made a mental list of all the employees who worked on Saturday and who they may have interacted with since then. It was pointless. Quarantining them would mean shutting our doors for two weeks.
“Can you just clarify what you mean when you say ‘close’ contact?” I asked the rep, clearly fishing for a lifeline, both for our business and for my conscience.
She e-mailed me an illustrated guide. We were looking for people who were within two metres of the pre-symptomatic employee for more than 10 minutes combined on Saturday.
The rep thanked me for reporting our workplace but told me, in no uncertain terms, that nobody would be following up unless there was a surge of cases traced back to the dealership.
So once again, I was alone to make a decision that could effect the immediate futures of our business and our employees.
I asked everybody who worked that fateful Saturday if they had been near the infected employee for more than 10 minutes. All of them said no. Whether that was true or not, I will never know. Just like me, they were forced to make an impossible choice. If they said yes, they knew they would be sent home with only a fraction of their pay to bide them for the holiday season.
Having nothing else to go on but their word, we remained open at full staff, although quite a few people did take me up on my offer of taking a day off for a COVID test.
Perhaps the employees were truthful or perhaps we were just lucky. Either way, there were no further positive tests or sick employees. For that I am eternally grateful.
Although our doors remain open, as long as COVID is with us, there will continue to be hard choices to make.
As I write this, another employee is quarantining because a member of their household tested positive. Thankfully, their personal test came back negative. But if it wasn’t, I would be right back where I started, trying to decide whether discretion really is the better part of valor.
Post Script – On December 14, about two weeks after our employee tested positive for COVID-19 and nearly nine months to the day that Ontario declared a state of emergency, I was e-mailed a comprehensive document outlining what do in the event that an employee tests positive for COVID-19. The e-mail also contained a wealth of other useful resources such as lists of approved disinfectants and an employee screening template.