Like many of you around the country, we have spent the last 6 months closely monitoring the ongoing situation related to the global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on business operations. During this time, as we shifted our long-standing brick and mortar office operations to 100% remote capacity, our highest priority has been the health and safety of our employees, clients, and office visitors; while our thoughts, prayers, and sincere condolences have been extended to all those impacted by COVID-19, including the more than 800,000 people worldwide (as of August 20, 2020) who lost their lives battling this deadly virus.
Our Ongoing Commitment to Client Service
As we continue to face the challenges of this pandemic, Norris McLaughlin has maintained a steadfast commitment to providing a high level of service that our clients have come to expect. We formed task forces within our firm to stay on top of legal developments and monitor legislation and executive orders at all levels to ensure we are communicating the very latest information to our clients. This is an approach we have followed consistently and that, over the years, has made Norris McLaughlin a go-to resource for our clients and business colleagues.
As we monitor and follow each state’s plan for reopening, it is important to note that the return dates for each of our offices differ and they have shifted as dictated by the health and welfare of our local communities, in conjunction with the direction of the Governors of each state, our local building managers, and of course most importantly, guidance from the science and data experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Our Plans to Safely Return to the Office
Returning to the office full-time after a lengthy absence requires that we regularly update our safety procedures and prevention measures to ensure that each person entering any of our offices enjoys a safe visit. This includes, but is not limited to, providing access to hand sanitizer stations, disinfectant wipes, surgical face masks or cloth face coverings, as well outlining a schedule of cleaning and disinfecting protocols, conducting a review of air-filtration systems, purchasing and installing shields for our reception desks, and establishing (and enforcing) social distancing guidelines.
We established a committee to study our workspace to ensure that enough distance exists between work stations and areas where our employees or guests of the firm may gather, including copier stations, the receptionist desk, break rooms, and other common areas. Upon your next visit to our office (assuming you’ve been before), you will notice many modifications to the layout and furniture to comply with these guidelines. In addition to limiting seating in our conference rooms, we have removed most, if not all, of the furniture from our reception lobbies and we reduced seating capacity in our employee break rooms. We’ve also posted conspicuous visible signage throughout our offices to remind employees and guests about these appropriate and mandatory safety measures.
While we recognize that our return to the office is an opportunity to more effectively deliver services to our clients and ignite collaboration with outside business colleagues, we still encourage our attorneys and clients to make use of available technology to conduct virtual meetings by phone or video conference. Furthermore, we will continue to monitor outbreak conditions nationally, as well as in in the New York/New Jersey Metropolitan area, the Lehigh Valley, and within our local communities. In considering our “return to the office”, we have taken advice and guidance from federal, state, and local authoritative resources to ensure we are doing everything possible to protect and promote the health and safety of our clients, visitors, employees and their families.
Current Status: Full Return to the Office On Hold/Hybrid Operations In Effect
While many of our staff and attorneys are still working remotely, we recognize the importance of resuming operations at our offices to accommodate client consults, deal closings, contract signings, and other critical functions that require a physical presence. On June 5, we began the process of returning employees to our Lehigh Valley, PA, offices full-time, as part of Governor Tom Wolf’s phased reopening of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, in response to growing numbers of cases reflecting community spread of the virus, Governor Wolf issued a supplemental executive order on July 15, which placed restrictions on business activities to mitigate the outbreak. Among the restrictions was a requirement that all businesses in the state should return to “work from home” operations, whenever possible. To comply, we shifted most of our PA employees back to remote operations, although our Allentown, PA, office remains open to clients during normal business hours with assistance provided by a limited team of legal support professionals, attorneys and administrators to coordinate essential onsite activities within the guidelines established and updated by Governor Wolf.
On June 29, we began a similar process of returning employees full time to our office in Bridgewater, New Jersey. As our largest office by headcount, we anticipated a full return could take some time to complete. As Pennsylvania experienced setbacks in their reopening process, our management team decided to reconsider our approach, and out of an abundance of caution, hit the pause button on our return to normal business operations in New Jersey. Like our Allentown location, Bridgewater remains open to all clients and invited guests. We have a team of legal support professionals, attorneys and administrators to coordinate essential onsite activities. For now, we continue to operate with a blend of traditional onsite and remote business operations, enabling us to serve our clients in the safest way possible.
As of now, our Times Square, Manhattan, office is open to essential firm personnel and invited guests only, with most attorneys and staff working remotely with no interruption of service. New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio has taken a deliberately cautious approach to implementing the state’s phased reopening plan, and while most of New York is in Phase 4, the Mayor of New York City has not yet endorsed reopening most indoor establishments. As conditions and developments change in all of our jurisdictions, we will update our protocols and adapt our safety measures accordingly.
PLEASE NOTE: All NM employees, clients, and visitors are required to wear a facial covering for the duration of their time in the office, as recommended by the CDC for the prevention of spread of the virus from asymptomatic hosts. Management reserves the right to refuse admittance or ask anyone to leave who does not or refuses to comply.
COVID-19 Health Screening for Employees and Office Visitors
Additionally, to comply with New York State requirements to conduct health screens of guests and visitors, we have created an electronic questionnaire that will be delivered to planned guests in advance of their scheduled visit to the office. Considering the need to comply with our region’s travel quarantine advisory, we are implementing this questionnaire firmwide for all offices. In addition to inquiring about recent travel to/from states on the advisory list, the questionnaire will touch on a number of basic questions intended to identify the presence of symptoms and confirm present COVID-19 status, as well as any known exposure to others who have a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis.
While we have taken all necessary precautions to preserve the privacy of information shared with us via this electronic health screen, per HIIPA compliance standards, our guests and visitors are not legally obligated to respond to the health screening, However, and in the interest of and for the safety and welfare of our employees, clients, and invited guests, we reserve the right to refuse admittance to anyone who does NOT complete the health screen or anyone whose responses indicate a situation that may pose a health and safety risk for our employees, clients or visitors to the office. We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate this “new normal.”
Finally, (although nothing seems to be final in this COVID-19 world) to better help you prepare for the reopening of your own businesses, we established a new information source – the COVID-19: Back to Business Center — to provide the most current and up-to-date guidance and resources at your fingertips for how to best and most safely get “back to business.” Here you will find links to important federal, state and local guidance, as well as thought leadership and virtual programs produced by our attorneys that are designed to help you prepare for your “new normal.” As always, and in addition to this new resource, our attorneys are here to assist you and help address any questions you may have as you consider the return to office process for your business. We look forward to your cooperation with the protocols outlined here, all of which are designed and implemented to protect everyone in our Norris McLaughlin community.
For months, we’ve heard the same three pieces of guidance, and they still apply: Wear a mask, socially distance, and wash your hands. And above all else, please be well and stay safe!
John N. Vanarthos, Esq.
Chairman, Norris McLaughlin, P.A.