Carolina PROSPER offers help to businesses ready to reopen safely amid COVID-19 pandemic

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- With the roll-out of the coronavirus vaccines, those working from home are now wondering when they'll be returning to the office.

Those in the mostly shuttered service industry who can't work from home are more ready for a return to the workplace than anyone. Meanwhile, many small and medium-size business owners say they really can't wait any longer to return to the workplace.

But even when the government allows that return, if it's not done safely things could get worse fast--both in terms of economics and health.

That's according to Leena Nylander-French who told ABC 11, "There is a rush, right now and I understand perfectly well. The businesses are hurting. North Carolina is hurting. The workers are hurting."

Nylander-French is a professor at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health and the director of the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Education and Research Center.

That makes her imminently qualified to lead the effort to get our state back to work without crashing the economy and healthcare system.

"If we're not careful," she said, "It definitely can be worse. It will affect the bottom line."

With money from the federal Cares Act her center has set up something called Carolina PROSPER. That stands for Promoting Safe Practices for Employees Return.

She said without a safety plan, a rush to reopen could sink already struggling small and medium-sized businesses.

"My biggest fear is that we will have a lot of businesses that go under," Nylander-French said.

That's why her center and Carolina PROSPER are offering to help businesses navigate the safety swamp because owners can't expect employees to do that.

If they did, she imagined what could happen, saying, "The worst-case scenario is that there is one person or a couple of persons who have asymptotic or have symptoms and they come to work because they feel that they have to come to work or they need to come to work."

That could then lead to an outbreak and potentially more shutdowns that some businesses won't survive.

"We have about two million jobs involved in small and medium-sized businesses in North Carolina," Nylander-French said. "About half of those jobs are at risk."

So no matter how desperate businesses are to reopen, she said they shouldn't do it without a good game plan.

"Ventilation, disinfection, protocols and so forth to make sure that every single worker in the workplace is actually safe."

And that's just a portion of the advice Carolina PROSPER can impart to business leaders.

So Nylander-French hopes in the coming weeks and months many small and medium businesses will take advantage of their resources.
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