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In our opinion: Reopening society means first traversing the ‘danger gap’

Sean Miller, owner of The Park Cafe, and his girlfriend, Tina Chante, put away outdoor tables after mocking up a dining setup that preserves social distancing at the Salt Lake City restaurant on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. Miller spent the day experimenting with table placement so he can open for dine-in service under the state’s new health orders expected in the coming days.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In many places across America, local governments are easing quarantine restrictions and residents are beginning to emerge from nearly a month and a half of “stay-at-home” orders and directives. Most states are starting slow, much like a toe-in-the-water approach. Others are diving in, attempting to jump-start a languid economy.

Whatever the approach, there’s no getting around the “danger gap.”

Joseph Grenny, a noted author, business strategist, behavioral influencer and co-founder of VitalSmarts, is striving to help businesses and organizations understand that their future success will be determined by how they lead employees and customers through the next phase of progress — the period between reopening society and the successful development of virus-killing remedies, such as a vaccine. This so-called danger gap could last up to a year, according to Grenny.

Success or failure during this gap period could spell the difference between success and failure for the economy and, ultimately, life and death for the most vulnerable.

Battling the novel coronavirus is going to require a long-term approach and long-haul citizen commitment to sustaining critical behaviors. Everyone must wear masks, wash hands, sanitize surfaces, keep a healthy distance and use good judgement when traveling and shopping.

Absent sustained diligence and discipline, the U.S. could very well see a spike in COVID-19 cases. This would, of course, erase the gains made in the early stages and result in a resurgence of restrictions that would again harm individuals, hurt communities and hamper economic recovery.

In a conversation this week with the Desert News, Grenny promoted a nuanced approach: “Be safe. Feel safe.”

The “be safe” is centered in all of the practical tactical elements of dealing with the pandemic. It’s what society has been practicing for the past six weeks: Social distancing, properly configuring restaurants and work spaces, utilizing technology to replace in-person meetings and encouraging others to do the same.

The second component — “feel safe” — is equally important. As Grenny puts it, “Nervous employees don’t work and nervous customers don’t buy.” So it won’t be enough to only do some of the pragmatic precautions; organizations must communicate to employees and customers what they are doing and how they are doing it. They should exhibit leadership by modeling the behaviors that will keep people safe while building confidence in returning to daily routines.

This must be an ongoing process that cannot be transmitted in one email or virtual meeting. This is about sustaining change and changing cultural attitudes. This will require leadership at every level of society.

The British may have signaled the right approach to this next phase of dealing with COVID-19 with the signs often seen in cities across the U.K. — “Mind the gap.” Being mindful of the danger gap in dealing with the next phase of this pandemic requires the vigilance of every citizen and every organization to make sure they can “be safe” and “feel safe.”