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How Utah small business can plan for a coronavirus disruption

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Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance, speaks at the Utah Economic Outlook and Public Policy Summit at the Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 18, 2019.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As individuals and businesses work to mitigate the potentially debilitating impacts of COVID-19, one Utah business leader says the best way to make changes while still trying to run a business that doesn’t endanger workers or customers is to behave the same way that individuals are behaving now as they try to stay healthy.

“That is by implementing best practices at a business. Let people work from home. Be liberal in your leave policies so that you’re encouraging people to stay home if they’re sick, and certainly not unintentionally encouraging him to come to work if they’re sick,” said Salt Lake Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller, who is also on the Utah COVID-19 Community Task Force.

“Then we talk about contingency planning and employee redundancy. Businesses ought to be doing these contingency plans now. In fact, they should have been doing it last week and they should be implementing them now.”

He said by identifying workers who are essential operationally, businesses can increase efficiency and maintain a healthier workplace and workforce.

“The important thing is that if they do that, then what we will do as a community (and) as a state is we will flatten out that curve of people getting the sickness,” he said. “When we flatten out the curve, it will minimize the economic impact both in depth as well as the duration of the impact.”

He said the main message is “preparation defeats panic.” He added that in such a delicate and potentially disastrous situation, being overly prepared is a much better alternative to poor preparation.

Miller noted that COVID-19 is wreaking havoc in some countries, while other nations who tackled the problem sooner have been able to diminish the proliferation of the illness, which is the illustration from which the United States should model its efforts.

“We see examples like in Italy, where their health care system has been overwhelmed,” he said. “But we also see examples like in Taiwan where they’ve been actually able to flatten that curve, slow down the spread. We want to follow the Taiwan model.”

He said Utahns should also take heed of Gov. Gary Herbert’s recommendations of avoiding large gatherings, particularly if you have an underlying illness. He said vigilance will serve people well by preventing a prolonged outbreak.

“This is the thing that’s going to help us take our medicine today so that we’re well tomorrow, both in a literal sense, as well as in an economic and business sense,” Miller said. 

Meanwhile, a report in SmallBizTrends indicates that 27% of businesses expect the coronavirus to have a moderate to high impact on their revenue and just over half are preparing for a significant economic decline. In response to those findings, a local analyst has suggestions for local small businesses forced to contend with the disrupting effects the illness is having on Utah.

Troy Scott, director of business payments and technology for Zions Bank, said there are measures that small businesses can implement to help reduce virus-related impacts on their enterprises, including using online tools to maintain business continuity and planning.

“People getting their arms around technology is really going to help us move forward and do business as usual,” he said.

“People are just going to have to work with technology and be smarter about how they’re conducting meetings, whether it be through a Skype or a conference call, or WebEx or whatever it may be,” he said, adding that businesses will have to use technology in the most effective manner possible to continue to operate as closely to usual as they can.

Also if widespread disruption prevents physical trips to a company’s financial institution, which many small businesses still do, it will be critical to have digital access for making deposits and payments remotely, he said.

Another key recommendation is to make plans to pay employees no matter where they are. Rather than issuing paper checks, employers should work with their bank to set up electronic methods for paying employees, such as direct deposit, he said.

Small businesses should conduct a thorough audit of their existing financial systems, he advised. Having a system that requires minimal or no downtime will keep the business running smoothly throughout a crisis and auditing the existing system could reveal possible weaknesses that need to be corrected, she said.

Lastly, Scott advised using technology to protect businesses from online fraudsters seeking to capitalize on coronavirus fears.

“(Criminals) are going to try to do something where they create an opportunity to make money and pull money out of your account,” Scott said. “This is a real good time for everybody to step back look at what they have in place to prevent fraud.”