The stark warning, from a federal health official, was a wake-up call for employers in Boston and around the country that hadn’t been focused on whether the coronavirus epidemic would make its way from China to the United States.
“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at a news conference Tuesday.
Her statement, combined with the spread of the disease to countries such as Italy and South Korea, put the American business world on notice: It is time to start planning for the possibility, however remote, that numbers of workers, service providers, and customers will fall ill. That the government will tell companies to keep employees home, whether or not they are sick. That public transportation will be halted.
“It’s really important for leaders to sit down and think about what is really unthinkable,” said Ed Davis, a former Boston Police Department commissioner whose security firm advises clients on risk management. “There are contingency plans at most companies, but they have not given pandemics a lot of thought.”
For most companies, contingency planning begins with the basics, said Davis, who has done work for the Globe. This includes figuring out which operations can continue with most employees working remotely; providing workers with software and training so they can log into the corporate network and ensuring those connections are secure; and reinforcing the importance of good sanitary habits such as frequent hand-washing so employees avoid infection.
Employers also need to determine which employees will still need to go into work, and how they will get there if public transit isn’t available, and what additional help they might need, such as child care.
“Most employers can be more flexible than they think they can be,” said David Rosenthal, who leads the labor and employment practice at law firm Nixon Peabody in Boston. “Give it a try, and let your employees know you’re prepared.”
Companies with ties to Asia have already jumped into action.
Takeda Pharmaceutical, which is based in Japan and has 5,000 employees in Massachusetts, has activated its global crisis response committee, which is tracking the outbreak and advising employees.
“Our facilities in the US are following strict infection control protocols including regular deep cleaning and sanitization across our sites,” spokeswoman Katie Joyce said in an e-mail. “We would, of course, extend the recommendation to work remotely to our US teams if appropriate.”
The company is discouraging nonessential international travel, and has asked employees who do travel to get a health risk assessment before leaving and to notify the company’s health provider if they experience cold or flu symptoms.
But some businesses can’t simply tell employees to work from home. Retailers, health care providers, and restaurants not only need workers on-site, their sales depend on people going out in public.
At Legal Sea Foods, “we are waiting with bated breath,” said Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of the restaurant chain.
Berkowitz said there has been some falloff in traffic at his restaurant at Logan Airport’s international terminal because flights from Asia have been canceled. Luckily, it’s off-season for Asian tourists in Boston, he said.
He’s also anxious about attendance at the Seafood Expo North America, a big trade show where producers, processors, and buyers network and make deals. The show is scheduled for March 15-17 at the South Boston convention center.
The company that runs the expo said it had been expecting Chinese companies to make up 190 of its 1,300 exhibitors. Of that group, all but 22 have canceled because of travel concerns.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which runs the convention center, is using policies developed during the SARS and swine flu outbreaks.
“We are tracking data, reviewing what’s happening for a potential pandemic response,” said Rob Noonan, the authority’s chief information and security officer.
Boston’s Museum of Science has initiated its pandemic response plan, which includes a team closely monitoring developments, increased cleaning of the building, additional hand sanitizer stations, and training of staff and volunteers on how to prevent the spread of infections.
The museum also has scheduled a town-hall style community meeting on March 8 at which a panel of experts will be available to discuss the coronavirus and answer questions from the public, said Todd Sperry, the museum’s senior vice president of marketing and communications. Admission will be free.
Amid the contingency planning, companies — especially smaller ones — should not forget to review their business insurance policies to confirm what coverage might apply to losses stemming from a domestic coronavirus crisis, said Kirk Pasich, a partner at the law firm Pasich LLP in Los Angeles.
Many business property insurance policies will cover losses if a company’s facilities can’t be used because of contamination from a virus. They may also include business interruption coverage, which could reimburse losses if the outbreak made it impossible to get shipments from suppliers or deliver products to customers.
As with any crisis, it is important to remain calm and keep lines of communications open, especially with employees, said Alex Stanton, a crisis communications expert in New York.
“Think three to four weeks out,” he advised. “Expect inaccurate information and disinformation. And be measured and factual. Get people good information, promise to provide timely updates, make sure people know where to go if they have a problem or issue.”
Jon Chesto, Felice J. Freyer, and Andy Rosen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.