The Coronavirus Outbreak Commonly Asked Questions (Updated March 16, 2020)

What is a coronavirus?
A novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified. The virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic.
How worried should I be?
The WHO released on March 11 that in the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher.
How do I keep myself and others safe?
Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick. Visit the COVID-19 Prevention and Treatment page to learn about how to protect yourself from respiratory illnesses, like COVID-19.
What if I’m traveling?
There are many travel restrictions in place for several countries.
How can I prepare for a possible outbreak?
Keep a 30-day supply of essential medicines. Get a flu shot. Have essential household items on hand. Have a support system in place for elderly family members.
Where has the virus spread?
The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 164,000 people in at least 140 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
How contagious is the virus?
According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.


How to Prepare for Workplace Safeguards
  • Designate a person in your office to check the CDC website daily to review the latest information on the spread of the virus and the CDC’s recommendations to employers and the general public. This person should take responsibility for sharing this information within your entire company.
  • The CDC advises employers to emphasize staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand-hygiene by all employees using the following actions:
  • Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees.
  • All employees should cover their noses and mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing (or an elbow or shoulder if no tissue is available). Don’t shake hands with others during this time.
  • Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60-95% alcohol, or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace. Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained. Place hand rubs in multiple locations or in conference rooms to encourage hand hygiene.

Follow CDC’s recommendations for using a facemask.

CDC does not recommend that people who are well should wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).
Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

The CDC also recommends routine environmental cleaning:
  • Routinely clean all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace, such as workstations, countertops, and doorknobs. Use the cleaning agents that are usually used in these areas and follow the directions on the label.
  • No additional disinfection beyond routine cleaning is recommended by the CDC at this time.
  • Provide disposable wipes so that commonly-used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.
The CDC further recommends as follows:
  • Allow flexible use of sick leave policies during this time.
  • Talk with companies that provide your business with a contract or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home.
  • Employers should be aware that more employees will stay at home to care for sick children or other sick family members than is usual.
  • Use this opportunity to communicate with your employees about seasonal flu prevention strategies, such as minimizing contact, not shaking hands and engaging in sound hygiene and sanitation. (The CDC states that statistics demonstrate seasonal flu poses a far greater and more immediate threat to your employees’ health at this time than does Covid-19.
  • Do not panic or overreact but rather engage in sound business contingency planning. Begin by developing contingency plans about how you will operate in the event absenteeism rates greatly exceed those of a normal flu season.
  • Develop a plan for communicating with your employees if a major pandemic breaks out. Plan for worse case scenarios now so you can effectively respond to what will likely be a rapidly changing situation. To do this, your management should anticipate and prepare for how you will answer the plethora of questions that will almost certainly be raised. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) and similar state laws, employers have a general duty and obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment, even when the work occurs outside the employer’s physical premises. Furthermore, under these health and safety laws, employers must not place their employees in situations that are likely to cause serious physical harm or death.
  • In sum, the CDC recommends planning ahead for the worst, but do not overreact by implementing broad-based bans and making business decisions about employees that are not based on statistical realities.

Other Broad Considerations

Leave Issues

• HR’s job is usually to keep employees from missing too much work (limited PTO, attendance programs).
Covid-19 requires different thinking:
• How do we keep sick employees at home?
• How do we avoid using up their sick/PTO time?
• How can we get those who are able to work at our site or remotely?

Returning to Work

• Monitor and follow current CDC guidance on when an individual who has had Covid-19 can return to a general business setting.
• An employer may require a return to work note from a physician, consistent with its policies, including FMLA policy.

The Absences

• Are they paid? (They need not be, for non-exempt employees.)
• Must employees exhaust paid leave? (Employers can require this).
• Does the absence count as an “occurrence”? (If it is not FMLA leave, it can).
Should absence for Covid-19 form the basis for discipline? Beware of conflicting policy approaches:
• “We want you to stay at home if you’re sick.”
• “But we’ll discipline if you do.”

Some More..

FMLA considerations

• Covid-19 is likely a serious health condition under the FMLA.
• An absence of more than three consecutive calendar days; and
• Two treatments by a health care providers, or
• One treatment plus continuing regimen of treatment.
• If an absence is FMLA-covered, it should not be counted under an “occurrence” attendance-control policy.

ADA considerations

• Covid-19, as it is now, is likely not a disability.
• However, complications from Covid-19 could constitute a disability.


• We do not recommend a requirement to obtain a seasonal flu shot, or a Covid-19 vaccine, should it be generally available.
• However, inducements to obtain vaccinations may encourage employees to obtain one (e.g., on-site administration of shot; low or no cost to employee).

Preparedness in the event of a more serious situation

This is intended to address more serious situations (e.g., public health officials mandate quarantines of an entire city or parts of a city, or infections are so widespread that employees are afraid to come to work). As the CDC guidance indicates, the situation may change rapidly and there may not be much time to figure out these details in the event of a rapid spread of cases.

1. Determine which employees must work from home to facilitate business continuity (“core employees”).

2. This likely includes exempt, managerial employees, but it may encompass non-exempt, administrative employees who know how to get certain things done.

3. Make sure employees’ work-from-home capabilities are intact (internet connection, printer/scanner, laptop, etc.), and take steps now to ensure any necessary equipment is available to such employees.

4. Determine which employees would ideally augment the core employees.

5. This might include customer service, IT, and communications employees.

6. Make sure employees’ work-from-home capabilities are in place for the extent of the work they would need to do.

7. Plan now for the IT remote access (and security), conference call, and other technical capabilities needed for a dispersed workforce.

8. If your business involves the delivery of physical goods, re-stocking of supplies, or services performed at another business location, coordinate with those businesses to determine the best approach to business continuity in the event of more widespread infections.

9. Consider how your business would be impacted by an illness-based shutdown or slowdown at your suppliers.

10. You may want to stockpile certain components or other goods to be ready for such an event.

11. Determine how you will address pay for non-exempt employees who work remotely during a closure.

12. How will employees record their time when working remotely?

13. Practically, how can you enforce how much employees work?

14. Determine how you will address pay for all employees who do not work.

15. After exhaustion of any paid leave benefit, will non-exempt employees have any additional payments to help them in the event of a two-month closure?

16. Will exempt employees who perform no work be instructed not to perform work so they do not create arguable obligations of entitlement to pay for checking e-mails, making sporadic calls, etc.?

17. Are there any resources (e.g., paying for delivery of groceries) you want to make available to all employees during a business closure?