The city of Beijing recently released detailed guidelines for workplaces to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, or Covid-19, within offices and other places of business.
Broadly speaking, the city wants companies to cut in half the number of people present in a workplace at any one time, whether by allowing employees to work from home or by coordinating staggered shifts. Some of the other rules, which were posted to an official Beijing WeChat channel (link in Chinese) this week, are even more precise.
The government has suggested that elevators never be more than 50% full, for example, and that co-workers not eat facing each other, presumably because of the risk from any airborne spittle of an infected person. (Some people who have acquired the potentially deadly flu-like virus do not show any symptoms or exhibit only mild symptoms, like fever or coughing.) Beijing’s companies also are expected to appoint one employee each to enforce the new rules.
Other guidelines would have employers:
- Take employees’ temperature daily
- Help employees with infections or suspected infections to seek medical treatment and report the issues to the relevant health departments
- Provide workspaces that are at least 2.5 square meters, and have employees maintain a meter’s distance between one another in the office
- Clean and disinfect public areas and fingerprint or key-access points daily
- Clean and disinfect centralized air-conditioning and ventilation systems weekly
- Assess the health of any visitors to the office to prevent the spread of the virus to staff
(The Beijinger, a local English-language site, published this translation of all 10 of the city’s guidelines.)
Wash your hands frequently
As of Feb. 27, 2020, more than 78,000 cases of the Covid-19 disease have been confirmed in China, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The virus is now spreading in other countries, including South Korea, Iran, and Italy. The total number of confirmed cases worldwide is over 82,000.
Within China, Hubei province has been most affected by the epidemic; currently, in that area, more than 65,000 cases of coronavirus, and more than 2,600 related deaths, have been reported, compared to the reported 410 cases and five deaths in Beijing.
Asked to comment on Beijing’s new workplace rules, Robert Amler, M.D., dean of New York Medical College’s School of Health Sciences and a professor of public health, says that some of the advice is more specific than he’d expect, but that doesn’t mean he questions its validity.
When a disease is spreading in multiple countries at once, guidelines will naturally be different from place to place, he says, and will speak to the lifestyle, and to the trajectory of the virus, in each location. In China, he notes, “there’s a tremendous amount of congestion and crowding. They really do live under very different conditions than we do” in the US.
So if you work in a less-dense environment or in a country less impacted by the virus, should you change the way you behave around the office?
“If you’re going to be touching surfaces in public places, wash your hands frequently,” Amler says, echoing guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control for everyday prevention of illness during flu and respiratory season. Hand-washing is still the best defense because it curbs the risk that you will touch a surface that’s contaminated and then touch your face and infect yourself, Amler explains.
“Try to remember not to touch your face a lot, which is hard,” he says, adding that people are generally unaware of how often they do it. “And if there’s no soap or water available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol,” he suggests. Wearing gloves in public places also can be helpful.
It’s not known how long the coronavirus can survive on hard surfaces, though some evidence suggests it may be multiple days. “But the more important messages is that surfaces should be cleansed frequently and, again, hands should be cleansed frequently,” Amler told Quartz.
It’s also best to avoid people who are coughing or sneezing, or keep at least keep a minimum distance of six feet from anyone who is expectorating, the doctor advises. “That’s far enough that most droplets will fall with gravity and not hit you in the face,” he explains, but if you can keep a further distance, so much the better. Meanwhile, if you’re coughing or sneezing yourself, stay home and seek medical attention. “Stay away from everyone else,” he says.
For now, he points out, the flu remains a much bigger problem in the US. If your objective is to minimize the risk of a respiratory illness, get a flu shot if you haven’t already (it’s not too late). And, says Amler, if do get sick, you can ask your doctor to prescribe an antiviral medication.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that it’s unclear how long the virus can survive on surfaces, though it may be several days.