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As Coronavirus Spreads, Are Retailers’ Pandemic Preparedness Plans Ready?

With respect to the prospect of a deadly pandemic, whether it occurs in nature or from terrorists, most scientists suggest that we are living on a major fault line. They predict a big one is coming, but there is just no telling when. Will the coronavirus be the one?

Retailers have had practice in readying for possible pandemic, of course. Several years ago (see “Avian Flu Pandemic!”), there was substantial concern that H5N1 (bird flu) might mutate into a deadly form that could spread easily between people and cause a global outbreak. Although that threat didn’t materialize, scientists continue to warn that there is no fundamental hurdle preventing the mutations from taking place in nature. Indeed, the coronavirus is believed to have originated in a large animal and seafood market in Wuhan, China.

As we reported in November, futurist and author Rob Reid sees a scary future in which terrorists take advantage of advances in synthetic biology and lax global regulation to create human-made viruses capable of spreading globally and devastating populations. Reid created a stir in October when he described to Newsweek how DNA synthesizers could develop over the next decade or so to successfully develop a deadly virus.

He said there is already a history of using synthetic biology in connection with viruses. Scientists have tweaked viruses such as bird flu to study what potential variations could do to a population, he explained. With little global oversight of this work, the potential for it to fall into the wrong hands is not far-fetched, he suggested.

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As a business risk, it’s likely hard for a retailer to think it makes sense to embark on a major pandemic planning initiative. Many departments must prepare for their role in a major virus outbreak and many details will need tending to, such as employee tracking, travel restriction, alternate work sites, and equipment and medicinal stockpiling. And there are, most retailers probably think, more pressing business issues.

Still, security leaders shouldn’t let a lack of attention at an organizational level prevent an annual program review of its readiness. Corporate security teams should periodically assess its readiness to respond to a pandemic. But what might such LP department preparations include?

A major event might require managing LP with a security force that is cut in half. During the peak of a pandemic, security managers should expect 50 percent of their staff to be absent for at least two weeks. While work-at-home strategies may suffice for some corporate positions, security staff is needed to protect assets, and executives need to:

  • Plan for how stores could maintain the security operation at this reduced staffing level,
  • Ask contact guard providers what planning they’ve conducted,
  • Identify a strategy for shutting down portions of facilities to ease the demand for security staff, and
  • Cross-train enough personnel to ensure that alternative security staff will be able to fill essential security positions.

If a retail chain has store locations in a region where human-to-human transmission is occurring, retail businesses may find the need to advise staff not to enter if they have symptoms. In addition to warnings, it may fall to LP staff to help identify if arriving employees are exhibiting symptoms.

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A major outbreak may also require security teams to prevent large gatherings by restricting access to large public areas or otherwise dividing up large groups. LP staff training may not be needed now, but corporate trainers should always be gathering the latest materials to be ready to offer training and reviewing exactly what access control procedures might be required by an outbreak.

Finally, depending on the type of outbreak event, stores in an outbreak region could remain open, and it might be a vital pubic service for them to do so. But that is only possible if workers show up. Employers will need to ease anxiety by providing visible evidence that it is taking all steps necessary to make the workplace the safest location workers can be. This is likely to require LP staff to help apply disease prevention measures in the workplace to minimize the risk of transmission of a virus through environmental sources. Security supervisors at each location should be outfitted with a description of measures that they will need to take if an outbreak occurs, so they are ready to instruct staff.

This article was originally published in November 2019 and updated in January 2020.

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