Coronavirus & Tough Decisions

Coronavirus & Tough Decisions

What Risk Managers, CEOs, and School Superintendents Can and Should Learn From Our Response To The Coronavirus Pandemic

March 16, 2020

Many will have different opinions about the federal government’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. But I’ve been paying particular attention to the response efforts of businesses and school systems around the country, and that has made one thing abundantly clear: Not all who share risk management responsibilities at the most senior levels appear to have the necessary risk management training and leadership skills that are required during times of emerging threats.

Of the 11 leadership principles I was taught as a United States Marine Officer, there are two that are particularly relevant to risk management leadership in the context of the coronavirus response:

  • Make sound and timely decisions
  • Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions

In Virginia, one of the largest school systems did everything they could to resist the calls by thousands of parents and students to close schools to protect against non-symptomatic spread of COVID-19 to the elderly and other family members at risk. The county’s health advisor supported the decision to keep schools open, saying the policy was to close individual schools only after somebody at that school tested positive for the disease.

This was happening as the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was warning that young people could be spreading the coronavirus and called for increased social distancing in an effort to blunt the likely spike in outbreaks that would overwhelm the healthcare system.

In the end, the school system in Virginia was forced to change its position by thousands of parents and students who took to social media and signed a petition at The governor ordered schools to close on March 13. Twenty-four hours later, a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.

The New York Times reports that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hesitated to close schools and restaurants, leading some senior health officials to threaten to quit. It wasn't until de Blasio was shown a chart of the predicted outbreak that "painted a disastrous picture of the days and weeks to come unless the mayor took immediate action" that he announced the closures.

Risk management leadership demands more than following policies and procedures, and relying on data for decision making. Risk management leadership also requires the ability to make unpopular, difficult decisions in scenarios lacking conclusive data. And taking responsibility for such decisions often requires other leadership traits, like courage, judgment, and decisiveness.

Coronavirus risk management is not, as one Forbes magazine education writer called it, an exercise in juggling “the impossible, competing demands we so casually place on [school administrators].” It should not be hard for individuals with risk management responsibilities, like school administrators and CEOs, to do the right thing and make the right decision. The hard part is understanding the implications of your decision and then conducting the proper planning to mitigate the negative impacts.

When the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association suspended their seasons, Monumental Sports & Entertainment Managing Partner Ted Leonsis immediately announced that the Capital One Arena -- home to the Washington Capitals, Wizards, and Mystics -- would not host any other events until further notice. “We know the general public is anxious about the virus and the potential threat to our health and safety,” Leonsis said in a statement March 12. “We share your concerns. Safeguarding the health and welfare of the community is paramount.”

That was not an easy decision. Monumental is an enterprise with six professional sports teams, four venues, and more than 500 full-time employees. But it was a sound, timely decision that was backed by a plan to pay part-time employees through the end of March for any games they were scheduled to work.

So, what does all of this mean for risk management leaders going forward, particularly during the coronavirus emergency?

  • A good plan executed today is better than the perfect plan executed tomorrow
  • If your judgment is based upon the value of your mission and caring for your community, then most of your decisions will be good ones
  • Moral courage means making the right decision when it is not popular to do so
  • Short-term thinking can have serious (negative) long-term consequences
  • You will make mistakes; admitting to mistakes and adjusting course shows integrity -- another key leadership trait needed during the current national crisis.

And remember, although there is no specific OSHA standard covering COVID-19 exposure in the workplace, the following standards may apply and be enforceable as the situation changes:

  • OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards (in general industry, 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I), which require using gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection.
  • The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act of 1970, 29 USC 654(a)(1), which requires employers to furnish to each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

For more information, see Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 - OSHA

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