Staff Writer

Lockdowns, quarantines, and face masks aren’t as novel as they might seem. From the cholera outbreak of the 1830s to the 1918 Spanish flu, people around the world have fought their way through chaotic, stressful circumstances plenty of times before. And humanity has always come out on top.

Certainly, the 2020 coronavirus has sent economic and social shockwaves around the world. It has also reminded us that you can’t predict tomorrow. Case in point: On Dec. 31, 2019, the general fiscal outlook seemed rosy and the markets leaned bullishly. By March, everything changed when an international health emergency sent commerce into a tailspin.

That doesn’t mean you can’t prepare for your small company’s reopening, though. In fact, one of your main focuses this moment should be on how to accommodate the needs of your stakeholders in a world recovering from an epidemic. The best way to put together a reopening plan? Dive into the history books.

Planning to Reopen: A Look Behind Us

Pandemic planning for business isn’t new. Organizations have repeatedly dealt with small business challenges during and after crises not unlike the coronavirus.

Consider the response of mom and pop stores during cholera’s infiltration of New York City during the early 19th century. Neighborhood merchants closed in response to cholera. Citizens took everything out of their bank accounts, even though there wasn’t as much to buy due to rolling shortages of everything from prepared food to regular merchandise. Nevertheless, the Big Apple’s little stores slowly sprang back to life, as they would 80 years later after the Spanish flu’s second visit to the States.

Like the coronavirus, the Spanish flu began overseas and traveled to U.S. shores. In response, people social-distanced and self-quarantined. They even donned masks. Not all businesses were forced to halt trade, yet companies staggered their hours to reduce traffic. Without social media, consumers got word of best hygiene practices through word of mouth and PSA campaigns. In New York City, theater audiences sat through live demonstrations of how to correctly cough and sneeze.

The Spanish flu lasted through three waves, from the spring of 1918 through at least the spring of 1919, until society could reach the threshold of herd immunity. At that point, restaurants fully reopened, kids went back to school, and small businesses resumed their services. Once again, life returned to normal.

Then came the four-decade fight to eradicate polio. Poorly understood, polio seemed to spike during warm weather, leading people to believe it was a communicable disease. As such, businesses changed their operations to meet the public’s needs and expectations. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s when Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine took away the public stigma and misinformation regarding polio.

What does this history lesson mean? In a nutshell, we’ve been here before. We can lean on precedent to determine what to do next.

Turning an Eye to Life and Business After COVID-19

Although most of us working today haven’t experienced major epidemics, we can learn from thoughtful leaders who exhibited incredible small business resilience during past outbreaks. As you contemplate your small business challenges and opportunities post-COVID-19, consider implementing these proven strategies to inform your practices and approaches.

1. Review and revise your workplace protocols.

You’ll need to be hyperaware of all routines that could affect employee and customer health. For instance, will you need to change sanitizing expectations throughout the building, providing employees with special products to reduce the spread of germs? The American Industrial Hygiene Association has published coronavirus prevention ideas; use them as springboards to refresh your policies.

2. Make social distancing effortless.

Does your office layout or store design make it difficult for employees or customers to stay apart? Be open to the idea of reconfiguring your spaces as part of your pandemic planning for business. You might need to invest in dividers such as cubicle walls to make distancing more intuitive and natural. Likewise, allowing workers to telecommute when possible can lessen the number of people working on site.

3. Set nothing in stone.

Make adaptation your goal. We don’t know what reopening will involve; we can only make educated guesses. To find out whether what you’re doing is working, survey workers, set up social media polls, and keep the lines of communication open. The more input you get, the more confidently you can move forward. You might end up tossing parts of your pandemic preparedness plan for business after realizing they’re ineffective or insufficient. That’s normal under such atypical circumstances.

Our society’s recovery will be a stop-and-go process. But it doesn’t have to mean the end of your company. People have accepted that life will change radically in light of what’s happened. In other words, consumers are working on your side and want you to succeed. Adopt an innovative mindset — and don’t be afraid to look backward to guide you forward.