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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

A coronavirus consultant shares how she advises businesses on reopening

A sign advising about social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic. | ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images

“Just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean it’s safe,” she warns.

Dr. Dana Lerman was on the verge of launching a mobile Botox service with her business partner Andrea Stone. They were hoping to improve the reputation of traveling Botox with their company Social Remedy, based in Denver, Colorado. They had a website, lawyers, insurance, and a planned launch date of the first weekend of June. Then the coronavirus hit.

“My business partner and myself are very ambitious entrepreneurs, and we’re just not the type of people to sit and watch and just wait,” Lerman, an infectious disease specialist and entrepreneur, said. They knew they needed to pivot for the times.

While their initial idea was to mobilize coronavirus testing (people “were sitting in their homes, terrified,” Lerman said), the concept evolved when they couldn’t get insurance. The Covid Consultants, a firm dedicated to advising entities from restaurants to nursing homes about how to reopen with minimal risk, was born.

Now, as states have begun to reopen, businesses are desperate to serve customers in person and gain back revenue that was lost during the shutdown. Covid Consultants advises them on how to do so with minimal risk. Even beyond Lerman’s company, there is a huge market for coronavirus consulting. Many projects and deals from before the virus hit have been delayed, forcing consultants to adapt and businesses to seek help navigating the demands of the coronavirus.

Vox spoke with Lerman about the tips she has for businesses and Americans to deal with the coronavirus safely as the country reopens amid rising infection numbers and fears of a coming second wave.

“This is not a wave issue. This is a roller coaster, and this ride is not over anytime soon,” she said.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What do the Covid Consultants do, and why is there a demand for your business?

Not only do you have these struggling businesses who are losing money left and right, but it’s impossible for them to get through these extensive guidelines. These people are not medical experts; they’re just trying to have their business survive, and they’re worried and scared and they want to make sure that they’re doing it safely or responsibly. That’s where we decided we would come in. We came together, created the Covid Consultants, and we are a consulting firm that helps businesses of any size and any function responsibly reopen.

We do these extensive on-site evaluations, looking top to bottom and helping them correctly interpret the guidelines and get through those. We generate our own set of guidelines that compiles all the different ones and makes them readable. We understand that we’re all human beings, and we try to be realistic about expectations. Another thing that we do is we help people not waste their resources.

Now, a lot of times, people think that Covid Consultants are going to come into our place of work and they’re gonna recommend that we get UVC [ultraviolet germicidal irradiation] lighting and foggers and all these really expensive things, but that’s actually the total opposite of what we do. We go in and we help you to responsibly use your resources and not be wasteful about them. There is a lot of waste going around in a time when you really need to conserve those resources because everyone and their mother needs them.

How do you communicate and meet with your clients?

We go to their place of business, we walk through, we evaluate from the moment you can visibly see the establishment. We go to top to bottom. We comment on signage, we comment on placement of hand sanitizers, furniture. The list is endless. We look at your cleaning products. We run them through EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] websites to ensure that they’re coronavirus-certified.

What does the day-to-day of your job look like?

For instance, yesterday we went to an assisted living facility and we met with the staff there, they gave us a tour, we discussed plans for the future. We discussed generating our own guidelines for them, [and] specific questions that they might have for their particular facility. Then, while we are doing that, our phone is ringing off the hook, because we also sell PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests.

How do you sell PCR tests?

There’s PCR tests that look for active coronavirus, and then there’s antibody tests, which look for previous infection. So we actually do both and continue to have antibody testing sites where we go to schools, athletic clubs, churches, and we offer those antibody testings to the community. We own our own centrifuge and we centrifuge the specimens on site, and then we ship them overnight to Washington. We get results within 48 hours.

We also, in terms of looking for active coronavirus or screening asymptomatic people, we actually have a relationship with travelers to Alaska, because right now you cannot travel to Alaska, Hawaii, or French Polynesia without having a negative PCR test 72 hours prior to departure. So we partner with a laboratory in which we send clients a postmarked box; inside it is a specimen cup and directions. It’s a saliva test, so our clients spit in the cup, put it in the box, send it through FedEx, and that arrives in our laboratory in 24 hours, and we have results in 48 hours. It’s a luxury service that people are really appreciative of.

There’s a lot of mixed information out there about antibody tests. How effective are they?

I think it depends on which antibody tests you’re using. Obviously you want to use a test that is approved by the FDA under emergency use access, and then a lot of people that we test come in and say, “I swear January, February, I was so sick. I’ve never been sick like that before in my life. It ripped through my whole office; we all had it.” And then you get back your negative antibody test.

What I think is happening is I think that they did have it, but you know we’ll never know because of the test inefficiencies that we were previously dealing with when this first happened. But I think that what we’re seeing now in some of the early data that’s coming out about antibody testing is that the antibodies don’t last long. So these people very well may have had it and their antibodies just went away. The common cold is [a] coronavirus. It’s just a different kind of coronavirus. You can get the common cold several times in the season, and that’s because you probably developed these antibodies; they’re short-lived, and then once they go away, you’re susceptible again.

What is some general advice you give business owners about reopening?

You already know those tips. People know them. But we’re human beings, and they don’t act on them.

I can go into facility after facility, a restaurant or whichever kind of place, when they see me come in, they put their mask on. And to me, you know, I think it’s lovely, thank you for putting your mask on to protect me, but also before I got there, you didn’t have your mask on. So people know what to do; it’s just challenging to do it. I’m human, and I understand. I don’t like wearing a mask all day either. It’s really uncomfortable, and it’s annoying to have to go wash your hands all the time and to not hug your friends and to maintain a social distance of 6 feet from all people. That is not how we are used to living, but that is how we need to live, at least right now, and I’m sure for the near future, at least, because this is not going anywhere, unfortunately. This is going to be here for a while.

Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

You’re seeing these cases and people talk about waves, but this is not a wave issue. This is a roller coaster, and this ride is not over anytime soon. I’m just being realistic, and my partners and I talk about this all the time. I would love for there to not be a need for my services. That would be really great for me, because I’m also a human. I’m a mom, I want to send my kids to school, I want them to be able to go to their jiujitsu class and be face to face with their music teachers, but this is just not the reality. We are all subject to this coronavirus, and that should really be bringing people together. People need to wear masks.

What a lot of people don’t know is that it’s not about you. It’s not about an individual person. It’s about transmitting it throughout the community, and that’s what people are really failing to understand.

What have you noticed about restaurants reopening?

I went to my first restaurant last week, and I ate like I hadn’t had food in months. I sat outside because I think that sitting outdoors is safer than sitting inside. I strongly recommend outdoor eating over indoor eating, any day of the week.

But I look inside, and I see that the tables are not 6 feet apart. That’s a real easy measure to implement — just rearrange the furniture. A lot of people don’t even want to go to a restaurant; a lot of people are not ready. But for those people who are ready, they should be able to walk into a place that has their best interest at heart and is educated and knows what they’re doing. Again, it’s not a challenge. Just move the tables apart. So that’s one thing.

Providing hand sanitizer when you walk in, that’s another thing. Having menus that are not reusable. I personally have been to restaurants where I’ll look over and see someone ordering, looking at their menu, and they literally sneeze right into the menu. Then they leave that menu, and whether or not they wipe that down, who knows, and then the next person comes and opens, it touches it, and then goes and eats. So that is how people get sick. And it’s not just coronavirus right; it’s influenza, it’s all the other viral illnesses that are out there, and bacterial illnesses. Minimizing touchpoints is important, wearing masks when you can.

What do customers need to know about restaurants reopening?

Just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean it’s safe. That’s a huge misunderstanding. We have friends who recently went out to eat together. They’re a group of 20-year-old kids. They did everything right, and a few days after that dinner, one of our friends learned that a few people at that dinner got coronavirus. While she knew she was exposed, she didn’t understand that she was supposed to quarantine. So people don’t even know the basic rules.

If you went to dinner with people, and then a few days later you find out that they were all sick with coronavirus, that means that you could potentially have it too. And you could be asymptomatic and you need to stay home for 14 days and seek testing. But when you don’t know that, and you go out into the community, that’s how it’s spread around. It’s also understanding that when you go to a restaurant, that is a risk in and of itself. I’m not at all discouraging it, it’s just you have to know how to act. If the people at your dinner table all have coronavirus the next day, that means you need to act on that.

How do you advise restaurants on reopening?

It’s about employees and it’s about restaurants’ patrons. We recommend that employees get temperature screened when they come to work [and] fill out a form of whether or not they have any symptoms, and if they have any symptoms at all they go home. Make sure your employees are safe at work, they’re not transmitting [the] virus to your other employees or people who come and eat at the restaurant. You might have a restaurant waiter or waitress who’s over 65 or who has diabetes or hypertension or heart disease. Those people are at increased risk of coronavirus, and maybe you wait until the next phase of reopening to bring back that vulnerable employee.

We recommend that they have clear signage on the front door, this is what we expect of our customers. Wear a mask when you’re not eating, wash your hands, use our provided hand sanitizer upon entry. Please do not come into our restaurant if you have a fever or if you have symptoms of coronavirus or if you’ve recently been exposed to someone with coronavirus. Things like that.

We also recommend that, like I said, they get rid of their reusable menus, condiments that are used by many people. We would prefer there are touchless condiment dispensers. I don’t know if people can buy those yet, but reusing those little packets with ketchup. While I do not want to create waste and I think this is gonna be an awful consequence of our times, I think right now that makes more sense than having a reusable ketchup bottle that everyone is grabbing. So it’s really those kinds of measures and socially distancing the tables. I think that those are the most important things.

How has the experience of starting the Covid Consultants been?

It’s just such an outrageous time as a physician and as an entrepreneur because the entrepreneurial playing field has just been leveled. I mean, before, it was so hard to come up with something novel and interesting, and because you’re competing with years and years of people doing the same thing over and over. But then when you have a viral pandemic and you happen to be an infectious disease physician from New York, it’s just so wild to me how I can have such an impact and help so many people. Even if Covid Consultants shuts down today and goes no further, besides my children, I think it’s my greatest accomplishment in my life.


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