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Troubled Times Call for a Declaration of Independence

Troubling times. With COVID we have taken many steps forward toward eradicating this plague, yet now we are taking steps backward as delta variants threaten our progress. For myself, I have never stopped wearing a mask in most situations especially indoors or around unfamiliar people outdoors. I distance, wash my hands, and limit my activities around others. Period.

But it wasn’t until I had a conversation with our talented landscape manager that I realized even further implications for virus transmission for the small business or any business. And for us all. Consider this.

We have been blessed with a relationship with a marvelous landscape group that helps us tend to our sometimes jungle-like property several times throughout the year. They are reliable, they are very professional, and it’s fun to see them periodically wrestle with the hydrangeas and boxwoods. But the visit last week was different.

The great-grandson of the founder of this company pulled me aside and said, “Okay, doc, this virus thing is killing me.”

I was stunned and thought for a moment that he himself was COVID positive, but this was not the case. Here is the story.

As a criterion for employment, each of his workers must be fully vaccinated. I am sure there are some legal implications to this mandate, but this was not optional in their family business. No debate, no discussion, and no employees balked at this mandate from the ownership. But now in the floral division of the company, which is a series of retail outlets, customers are coming into the stores from COVID/delta hotspots throughout the country (in Rochester, we attract visitors to the clinic from everywhere). Almost exclusively, among these customers, no one wears a mask, and no one knows anyone else’s vaccination status.

Address the Risks for Staff and Customers

The manager shared with me his real dilemma. Even though the employees are masked and vaccinated, they are clearly at risk of becoming infected from customers. What is of particular concern: Evidence now suggests that even the fully vaccinated individuals who do become infected with the delta variant can harbor a high viral load and can spread the virus to anyone else--vaccinated or not.

The visitors/customers who enter the stores to buy flowers are hardly in the mood for a dissertation on virology. But the data are clear. Unvaccinated and in general individuals not wearing masks are at risk themselves of infecting other members of the community. In some studies, 99% of individuals admitted to the hospital for COVID complications have not been vaccinated. The unvaccinated are sicker. The vaccine is protecting vaccinated people from severe complications if infected. Masks add a layer of protection.

My horticultural colleague was really in a dilemma: risk alienation of the customers, and this clearly puts the company at substantial financial risk. Or risk creating a situation where his loyal employees may become ill (again, in addition to health risk, he might have to close shops if staff are not able to come to work).

The employees can shed the virus even if fully vaccinated—as can customers. Masks are the great equalizer between risk and safety. And employees may infect individuals in their homes who are immunocompromised or at increased risk for severe disease such as older adults and those with certain medical conditions.

Another thorny issue is the recommendation to get a COVID test three to five days following exposure to an individual who might be suspected of harboring COVID because of coming from a high COVID area. You can just imagine the chaos in the workplace if multiple individuals who are working become infected by a customer. And they must be quarantined and obviously out of the office or shop.

The manager and I strategized how to creatively deal with this real-life challenge.

  1. Politely and professionally ask everyone (employees and customers, delivery people, repair technicians) to wear a mask.

  2. If there is any “pushback,” a very brief comment that, yes, this is an inconvenience and, yes, these are perilous times, but we’re all in this together and trying to protect ourselves and our families.

  3. A delicately worded sign outside of the store would be reasonable with the expectation that a mask will be worn (“We mask to protect you. As a courtesy, please wear a mask when coming into our store to protect us too.”).

  4. It is certainly reasonable to invoke current guidelines from scientific and political leaders that masking is clearly the right thing to do, the right time to do it, and the right people to take the lead on this.

  5. According to a former director of the CDC, the COVID-19 case count could reach 200,000 per day over the next several weeks into the fall. And to be simply factual and nonconfrontational is a reasonable position to take.

  6. Our collective response to COVID really involves a social contract that is in part of the Declaration of Independence. To paraphrase: The idea that people get together and agree to give up some of their freedoms to have and protect their truly important freedoms such as health and well-being.

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