Is it safe to reopen?
I keep seeing these kinds of questions, both on Facebook and in the news, and my response is always this:
One of the things we are taught to do as project managers is risk management. Early on in a project, good project managers work with their major stakeholders and team members to come up with a risk register. This is a list of all the potential risks to the project that could change the cost, schedule, or scope (and quality as well) if they are realized. Risks are usually potential changes with a negative impact–threats– but sometimes this review also includes opportunities–possible positive changes. After these are listed, they’re usually classified by probability of occurrence and potential impact, with the most attention then paid to those with high probability of occurrence and high impact.
It’s what happens next that’s key: the decision-makers for the project must agree on a strategy to mitigate the risk (what will we do to proactively reduce the probability and/or impact, as well as a contingency plan if it does happen), accept the risk (usually with a response plan if it does occur), avoid (eliminate the cause of the risk), or transfer (where the risk is transferred to another entity; insurance or warranties are the classic examples. This plan is based on the best information we have available to determine possible outcomes, as well as the project sponsor or company’s risk tolerance.
And we do this for every single project. Some risks are going to be consistent–there’s almost always a risk identified around losing or being unable to use key resources, or around natural disasters (including pandemics), but most are unique to each project. Not only that, you go back repeatedly during the project to monitor the risks, adjust any plans for dealing with them, and to pull the trigger on any response plans if any of the risks are realized and become issues.
How does this rate to reopening businesses during the pandemic?
Every one of us is a project manager for our own lives. But businesses and governments are also running “projects” during this crisis–or using project manager terminology, they are running huge programs where each individual “project” has an input. We all look to experts to give us information to help us understand what risks we are willing to take, and the possible impacts of our actions on others. The higher up you go, the less individualized the guidance. And experts do not always agree, especially when there’s not a lot of evidence to go on (such as in the early days of the pandemic). It’s on each one of us to understand how this all applies to our own lives. Of course, the problem is that not everyone makes these decisions based on good evidence. Some people and organizations, in fact, willfully ignore good evidence from experts and rely on their gut instincts, or make decisions about health based on politics or ideology. So it’s also important to understand how much the decisions of governments and businesses are based on scientific fact.
So, definitions are important, and it’s also important that words like “safe” are never black and white. What’s safe for you might not be safe for me, no matter what we’re talking about. In between those two extremes are a lot of caveats, and they’re all about risk mitigation. Is it safe for me to go out? That all depends on what you mean by “go out” (walk in the park vs. visit to the supermarket vs. visit to a restaurant patio vs. visit to a packed arena for a concert), what steps you (and possibly, the place you’re visiting) are going to take to mitigate the risk (masks, handwashing, physical distancing), how prevalent the infection rate is in the community, and, of course, your own risk profile (including age, state of your health, and others you might potentially expose if you caught the virus).
Likewise, the meaning of the word “reopen” is not the same everywhere. In some US states, “reopening” has included large public spaces, restaurants, and hair salons, even though cases are still rising–apparently these states are prepared to accept higher caseloads and death tolls, or believe that they can manage the fallout. In Ontario, to contrast, “reopening” is a phased approach, with the first phase mainly involving reopening activities with a relatively low risk profile (parks, individual sports), businesses with a similar risk profile as the essential businesses that stayed open, with requirements for physical distancing. There were a few services included with slightly higher risk profiles (e.g. cleaning services). I’m fairly well read about what the risk profiles are for various environments, and there’s not a lot of change in that with this phase.
To me, the biggest risk in this phase in Ontario is not in the actual reopenings, but in our responses to them–in possibly interpreting these steps not as cautious approaches to learning to live with a virus that is very much still with us, but as a sign that the pandemic is on its way to being over. We are accepting the risk, not avoiding it–we cannot avoid it at this point. Accepting a risk means implementing a mitigation or contingency plan, and without that plan, the risk is almost certain to turn into an issue. Our mitigation plans are physical distancing and cleanliness steps, and these cannot be skipped or disregarded at this point just because the infection rate has dropped significantly.
A key point is that government plans may or may not sync up with your own personal risk tolerances. They may or many not sync perfectly with public health or scientific recommendations. In many cases, they are a minimum standard for safety, based on the overall population, not on you and your particular situation.
Another key point: This is not a risk we will be eliminating any time soon. There are going to be cases out there–and even if we get them down close to zero, there will still be a risk until we have either a course of treatment that will cut the mortality rate significantly or a vaccine. There really is a balance to be struck between figuring out how to continue to function as a society and keeping the virus at bay. It’s an evolving situation, and there’s lots of experimentation taking place as to what can work. For instance, in March I don’t think anyone was recommending that non-medical staff wear masks in public. Now, Canada’s Chief Public Health officer just made that very recommendation, and PM Justin Trudeau showed up at Parliament today wearing a black facemask. That’s because we’ve got new data showing that if we can get a significant majority of people wearing masks in public situations, we might get the transmission rate down low enough to actually eventually slow community transmission to a trickle. Another way to address the issue is through testing and contact tracing–an area where I believe we still have significant room to grow.
But nothing is more important that understanding how this all applies to each of us, as individuals and a community. Know your own risk tolerance, and understand that if the general risk tolerance for the community is lower, you will have to default to that level. You will also need to understand the full risk mitigation plan–if that requires physical distancing and handwashing and a mask, you need to do these things, even if you personally don’t think you need to for your own safety. If the community’s risk tolerance is higher, it’s perfectly reasonable to continue to follow the steps you need to follow to keep your own risks low–and for others to accept that you feel the need to do this. We’re going to be moving a dynamic period over the next months as society tries to figure out a way to adapt to living with this virus. We need to be engaged with understanding what those risks are and to have our own plan for dealing with them.