COVID-19: Businesses and Employers

Below is guidance for businesses and employers for responding to COVID-19 and Emergency Order #12.

Emergency Order #12 aligns with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security list of essential critical infrastructure workers during the COVID-19 response. Section 13 of Emergency Order 12, Safer at Home Order, states that “Essential Businesses and Operations” means health care and public health operations, human services operations, essential infrastructure operations, and essential governmental functions as well as “any business or worker identified in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers during COVID-19 Response,” in addition to a number of other businesses, with certain conditions.

What can I do now to prepare for COVID-19 impacts to my workplace?

  • All employers need to consider how best to decrease the spread of acute respiratory illness and lower the impact of COVID-19 in their workplace. 
  • When making plans, employers should consider levels of occupational risk, local disease severity, and the potential impact of disease on vulnerable employees and customers. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has developed guidance to help assess occupational risk and lists a number of examples to help workplaces prepare for COVID-19.
  • Employers should also prepare for increased numbers of absences. School closures, day care closures, illness in employees and their family members, and other factors may contribute to higher rates of employee absence. Employers should develop and implement plans to respond to absenteeism at the workplace that relates to continuing your essential business functions. To the extent possible, find ways to cross-train personnel to perform essential functions so that the workplace is able to operate, even if key staff members are absent. See the Department of Labor’s Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 for additional information and resources.
  • Employers should ensure that their sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance, and that employees are aware of these policies.

What are nonessential and essential businesses?


All nonessential businesses and operations must close and cease all activities at facilities located within Wisconsin. All closures previously ordered remain in effect. Nonessential businesses include, but are not limited to:

  • Salons and spas
  • Public and private amusement parks
  • Water parks
  • Zoos and aquariums
  • Museums
  • Play centers and playgrounds
  • Movie and other theaters
  • Gyms
  • Other similar facilities

Nonessential businesses may maintain basic operations, such as managing inventory, preserving the physical plant and equipment, processing payroll and employee benefits, etc.

Businesses, including home-based businesses, may continue operations consisting exclusively of employees or contractors performing activities at their own home or residences—working from home.

What Safer at Home means for retail

Essential businesses

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation has defined essential businesses as those fitting the following definitions, and, as such, are allowed to remain open. Prior restrictions apply; for example, restaurants may only provide takeout food, no eating on the premises. All essential businesses shall meet social distancing requirements to the extent possible.

  • Health care and public health
  • Human services
  • Essential infrastructure
  • Essential governmental functions
  • CISA (Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency) list
  • Stores that sell groceries and medicine
  • Food and beverage production and agriculture
  • Restaurants
  • Bars
  • Child care settings
  • Organizations providing charitable and social services
  • Weddings, funerals and religious entities
  • Funeral establishments
  • Media
  • Gas stations and businesses needed for transportation
  • Financial institutions and services
  • Hardware and supplies stores
  • Critical trades
  • Mail, post, shipping, logistics, delivery and pick-up services
  • Laundry services
  • Supplies to work from home
  • Supplies for essential businesses and operations and essential governmental functions
  • Transportation
  • Home-based care and services
  • Professional services
  • Manufacture, distribution and supply chain for critical products and industries
  • Critical labor union functions
  • Hotels and motels
  • Higher education institutions

Additional details are available at the following links:

WEDC Essential Business Declaration
WEDC COVID-19 Business Resources

What can I do to slow or prevent COVID-19 illnesses my workplace? 

Educate Employees and Prepare Customers on Prevention Efforts
  • Place informational posters in prominent areas. CDC has developed a number of communication materials available in various languages, for employers to use. For example:
    • Post the Stop the Spread of Germs poster where it would be visible to the public or to employees, such as near the entrance, in public or employee bathrooms, in the employee break room.
    • Post the steps for proper handwashing in areas with sinks.
    • Post the Symptoms of Coronavirus Disease 2019, and the Stay Home When You Are Sick! posters in areas where employees are likely to see them.
  • Post information about the steps your business is taking to keep customers safe from COVID-19 on your website and at your physical location.
  • Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by employees and customers 
  • Instruct employees to clean their hands often with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer or wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Advise employees to avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. 
  • Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand rubs in the workplace to encourage hand hygiene. Ensure that adequate supplies are maintained.
  • Provide disposable wipes so that commonly used surfaces (for example, doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks) can be wiped down by employees before each use.
  • Whenever possible, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. See the CDC COVID-19 Disinfection Guidance.
Involve your human resources department or employee health for further guidance or under the following circumstances:
  • Employees who are well but have a family member at home who is sick with COVID-19 should notify their supervisor that they will not be attending work and quarantine themselves and any other household contacts. Family medical leave or other legal contracts may apply.
  • Individuals who are asymptomatic and have no knowledge of being exposed to someone with COVID-19 can attend work unless they have a possible travel exposure.
  • Public health officials will only contact employers about positive cases among their employees if there is a concern about compliance with isolation requirements or if there is a risk that other employees or others were exposed and needs the cooperation of the employer to locate those individuals. Public health does not routinely contact employers when the risk to other employees or others is low. 
  • If an employee shares that they have COVID-19 infection, employers should inform fellow employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and not share anything about the employee’s illness with other staff members. 
Develop policies and procedures for prompt identification and isolation of sick people, when appropriate.
  • Inform employees of the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 and develop policies and procedures for employees to report when they are sick or experiencing fever (>100.4°F) AND/OR respiratory symptoms (for example, cough, shortness of breath). 
  • Immediately isolate individuals who have signs and/or symptoms of acute respiratory illness. Move potentially infectious people to a location away from workers, customers, and other visitors. Although most worksites do not have specific isolation rooms, designated areas with closable doors may serve as isolation rooms until potentially sick people can be removed from the worksite. Restrict the number of personnel entering isolation areas.
Actively encourage employees with any acute respiratory illness to stay home. 
  • Ensure that employees who have symptoms of respiratory illness stay home and do not come to work until they are free of fever (>100.4°F) AND/OR respiratory symptoms (for example, cough, shortness of breath) for at least three days (72 hours) without the use of fever-reducing medicine AND seven days have passed since symptoms first appeared. Employees should notify their supervisor and stay home if they are sick.
  • Talk with companies that provide your business with contract or temporary employees about the importance of sick employees staying home and encourage them to develop non-punitive leave policies.
  • Do not require a health care provider’s note for employees who are sick with acute respiratory illness to validate their illness or to return to work.
Encourage employees who have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 to stay home from work and self-monitor.
  • DHS recommends that employees who are told they have a medium or high-risk exposure should be excluded from work for 14 days during which they should monitor for symptoms and/or fever.
  • Health care workers who have been exposed to a person with COVID-19 do not need to be excluded from work, but should self-monitor for symptoms and complete daily symptom checks in coordination with their employer. 
Practice Examples of How to Implement Prevention in the Workplace

Social Distancing

  • Reduce on-site work hours to the minimum needed to sustain operations.
  • Restrict visitors, including suppliers and customers.
  • Perform a workflow audit that removes instances of employees being within 6 feet of each other.
  • Make use of telework and/or remote work options. On-site work hours should be reduced to the minimum required to sustain operations.
  • Stagger schedules to limit the number of people congregating in an area at the same time, for example:
    • Staggered shifts and work hours.
    • Staggered use of shared spaces, including bathrooms, break rooms and lunchrooms.
    • Staggered facility entry and exit procedures.
  • Tape off 6-foot by 6-foot boxes on the floor of areas where customers queue up, such as at a check-in desk or check out-register.
  • Increase the availability of and promote the use of curb-side pickup service.
    • Staff up curb-side pickup service positions.
    • Dedicate a larger portion of your parking lot to pick-up services.
  • Increase the availability and promote the use of delivery service.
    • Staff up delivery service positions.
    • When delivering goods, drop them off (for example, at the customer’s door step or in their trunk) rather than handing them to the customer.
  • Ban in-person meetings (internal or external) and employee convenings (formal or informal) of any size.  
  • Handle employee communication virtually, wherever possible.
  • Discourage hand shaking or other forms of physical contact.

Sanitation and Hygiene

  • Place hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes throughout the retail space for customers to use, including near high-touch areas, such as checkout lanes and touch screens.
  • Make hand sanitizer and disposable disinfectant wipes available in employee areas.
  • Tape around surfaces that receive frequent human contact, and disinfect these surfaces multiple times daily.
  • Make sure that bathrooms are fully stocked with soap and hand towels, and that sinks are in working order.
  • Make single-use gloves available to employees.
  • When appropriate, prop open doors.
  • Make use of hands-free enabled technologies.
  • Do not share food.

Cleaning and Disinfecting

  • Increase cleaning staff.
  • Stagger services, such as closing in the middle of the day and/or opening later, in order to provide time for cleaning and disinfection before, during, and after the work day.
  • Wipe down carts, baskets, or other shared equipment throughout the day.
  • Clean common areas between shift changes.

Utilize physical barriers to protect staff and clients from infection

  • Use plastic sheeting, plexiglass, or another transparent barrier to separate workers from customers, such as:
    • At check-in desks.
    • At cash registers.
    • Between the front and rear seats of vehicles.
  • Discontinue use of close quarters common work areas (such as bull pens) and separate employees into offices or cubicles.

Utilize Administrative Barriers to Protect Staff and Clients from Infection

  • Reserve special hours of operation for customers who are at elevated risk for severe infection from COVID-19.
  • Utilize human traffic management by:
    • Limit nonessential movement within and among facilities (for example, restrict workers’ movements to only the parts of the facility where they perform their duties, limit the number of employees who travel freely throughout or between facilities).
    • Clearly separate employees by different shifts.
  • Limit deliveries to only those that support production activities or emergency building maintenance.  

How long should I wait before disinfecting an area where a person with COVID-19 has been present?

If an individual with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 has visited your workplace, more stringent environmental cleaning and disinfection protocols should be followed.

  • It is recommended to close off areas used by ill persons and, if possible, wait 24 hours before beginning cleaning and disinfection to minimize the potential for exposure to respiratory droplets.
  • Open outside doors and windows to increase air circulation in the area.  
  • Cleaning staff should clean and disinfect all areas (for example, offices, bathrooms, and common areas) used by ill persons, focusing especially on frequently touched surfaces.  
  • There is no recommended minimum amount of time that employers should wait after disinfection protocols have been implemented before employees can return to work in that area.

Travel-related work restrictions

  • Discontinue any non-emergent work-related domestic travel, especially to areas with community transmission of COVID-19.
  • International travel should be banned for both business and personal reasons.
  • See DHS guidance on travel-related restrictions.

When can a recovering COVID-19 patient return to work?

Ensure that employees who have symptoms of respiratory illness stay home and do not come to work until:

  • They are free of fever (>100.4°F) AND/OR respiratory symptoms (for example, cough, shortness of breath) for at least three days (72 hours) without the use of fever-reducing medicine; AND
  • Seven days have passed since symptoms first appeared.
One of my employees tested positive for COVID-19. How do I make decisions about maintaining operations?

Decisions about how and whether to maintain operations at a facility where a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 has been present are highly dependent on the circumstances and need to be made on a case-by-case basis.  

Regardless of whether a business decides to reduce or suspend operations or not, if a large enough percentage of employees were exposed, it may need to do so anyway.  Employers deciding whether to stop all or some of their operations should assess the probability that the sick individual infected other employees, the probability of the infection spreading from the business to the community, and the risks and benefits of maintaining or reducing/suspending operations.

The following considerations may be used by employers, local and state health authorities, and others to assess the situation and inform these decisions.  This guidance is directed at businesses that are permitted to continue operations per the Emergency Order #12: Safer at Home Order. However, this guidance is not intended for health care workers or other job functions that do not inherently carry a risk of exposure to COVID-19. See the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 for descriptions and examples of jobs by the level of exposure risk.  

Location and Duration of the Exposure
Employers should work closely with their local and/or state public health authorities to seek to understand the potential magnitude of the infected employee’s exposure to other co-workers in order to inform decisions about mitigation measures and/or the need for a full or partial closure. COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly person-to-person, through close contact (within 6 feet), but may also be spread through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.  

Key Questions:

  • How much of the facility and/or what areas of the facility did the employee spend time in while symptomatic?
  • How much time did the employee spend in different areas of the facility while symptomatic?
  • How much time did the employee spend in close proximity to other employees while symptomatic?

Potential Routes of Exposure
Understanding the potential routes of exposure will help you to determine how and how many staff were potentially infected.  

Key Questions—Based on the activities performed by the infected individual during their infectious period, what are the potential routes of exposure?

  • Person to person through sustained close contact?
  • Environmental through touching a contaminated surface?
  • Both?

Degree to Which Personal Prevention and Hygiene Measures Were Implemented
The best way to prevent infection with COVID-19 is to avoid being exposed to the virus. Employers should actively promote prevention strategies. Knowing the degree to which prevention and hygiene measures were followed will help an employer determine how and how many staff were potentially infected.

Key Questions:

  • Were employees trained on and implementing prevention measures (sick employees stay home; covering coughs, sneezes; discarding tissues; hand washing, etc.)?
  • Was there adequate access to hygiene materials (soap and water, hand sanitizer containing at least 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol, waste receptacles for tissues)?

Number and Types of Employees Potentially Exposed
Employers should seek to characterize the effect of the potential exposure on their staff and the business’ ability to continue critical operations.

Key Questions:

  • How many staff were potentially exposed?
  • Do the exposed employees perform critical functions for the business?
  • Can other employees be shifted to cover their duties?
  • Is it possible to remain open without them?

Number and Timing of Additional Illnesses
In order to make operational decisions, it is important to consider the employee’s illness in the context of other infections and illnesses within the rest of the organization.

Key Questions:

  • Was this the first and only employee to become ill or have there been others?
  • Are employee illnesses rising or declining?

Business Functions
The employer should assess the function or service the business provides within the larger context of the outbreak, the needs of the community, and the impact that reducing or suspending operations would have on their customers. Business functions should be taken into consideration when weighing the risks and benefits of maintaining or reducing/suspending operations.

Key Questions:

  • If your business were to reduce or suspend operations, do you have a plan and agreements in place that would facilitate the work to be done by either a different unit within your organization or an outside organization?
  • What are the potential consequences of suspending operations?
  • Is it possible to continue providing essential services if a portion of the organization shuts down?
  • What are the negative consequences of maintaining or reducing/suspending operations (for example, for health and safety, the economy, society)?
  • Does the business serve individuals at increased risk for severe infection from COVID-19 (such as older adults and those with chronic medical conditions like diabetes, heart or lung disease)?

Potential for Infection to Spread Within the Business
The employer should consider the potential impact to their business if COVID-19 were to spread among their staff. The potential for infection to spread within the organization should be taken into consideration when weighing the risks and benefits of maintaining or reducing/suspending operations.

Key Questions:

  • Are there employees at elevated risk for severe infection from COVID-19 (such as older adults and those with chronic medical conditions like diabetes, heart or lung disease)?
  • How many employee illnesses could the organization absorb while still maintaining operations?

Potential for Infection to Spread From the Business to the Community
Employers should consider the likelihood of the infection spreading from within the organization to the broader community through business interactions. The potential for infection to spread from the business to the community or from the community to the business should be taken into consideration when weighing the risks and benefits of maintaining or reducing/suspending operations.

Key Questions:

  • Does our business rely on close contact with clients?
  • Does your business produce products that could result in community spread if those products were contaminated by an ill employee?
  • Is it possible to conduct business remotely to prevent spread?
  • If additional workers have been infected, what is the probability that they will spread the infection to others in the community, including vulnerable populations or the worker’s families?

Additional Considerations
When considering operational decisions, employers should:

  • Act as though symptomatic individuals are infected with COVID-19 until they know otherwise.
  • Act quickly to prevent spread (implement measures immediately).

Where can I turn for more information? 

Last Revised: April 1, 2020