I have asthma and have been working remotely from the safety of my home since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic back in March. As a person with asthma, I am part of the vulnerable population who are at risk for serious illness from COVID-19 exposure and have been sheltering at home for over three months. Amid a spike in Gallatin County COVID-19 case counts, why am I returning to the office?

First, it’s important to state that under the current Phase 2 reopening guidelines, Governor Bullock’s office recommends that at-risk vulnerable populations continue to shelter at home. While I have examined my own personal reasons for returning to work, as well as the specific needs of my office, some at-risk individuals should continue to follow their primary physician’s recommendations and avoid exposure to COVID-19. I do not speak for the entire vulnerable population, but am simply sharing my own personal experience. In fact, while I personally feel it is “safe” to return, some of my fellow venerable remote workers do not.

Although I am concerned I’ll become seriously ill if exposed to COVID-19, I am painfully aware that Phase 2 could continue for an unknown amount of time. The virus isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. For the benefit of my own mental health, as well as to provide assistance to other office personnel during a very busy season, I’ve made the decision to return to work and learn to co-exist with COVID-19.

What factors helped me make the difficult (and scary) decision to return to “normal” office work?

Open communication with employer

The only way that people like me can decide whether returning to work during COVID-19 is safe is to have an open, honest and respectful conversation with their employer regarding COVID-19 and the preventative measures that can be put in place to ensure vulnerable employees are protected. I’ve been in close contact with my boss on how to make my return to work as safe as possible. For me, the biggest factor was the recent changes in office COVID-19 policies.

While the new “normal” may be anything but, these are uncharted times and it takes working together to come to a plausible resolution where everyone benefits and feels safe. I discussed with my boss the preventative measures and policies regarding the conditions of my return, which without these changes I would not feel safe enough to resume my “normal” office duties. Employers should take vulnerable employees’ COVID-19 concerns seriously and, if vulnerable employees do not feel it is safe to return, should not be pressured to do so – especially with cases on the rise and Phase 2 still in effect.

Staff Face Coverings Required, Not Recommended

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was aware that my coworkers weren’t wearing face coverings and that it wasn’t an office requirement. This lack of policy made me uncomfortable since the CDC recommends face coverings as an effective way to reduce the likelihood of an asymptomatic person unknowingly spreading COVID-19 – especially to those around you who are higher risk of severe illness (e.g. myself).

With the possibility of my return, staff have been accepting of the new covering requirement, especially if it means having another warm body to help with the busy summer season. Having these conversations with staff about why it’s important to wear face coverings is vital to the acceptance of this policy change – it’s not for you, it’s for them. If wearing a face covering makes your coworkers feel safer and vulnerable staff more likely to return to the office, isn’t it worth wearing?

Of course, this policy change also requires understanding from vulnerable people that for coworkers this may be an uncomfortable lifestyle change and they may need kind reminders. I can’t expect perfection and that if my coworker is at their own desk they may take the covering off to get some fresh air. If a coworker is moving around the office or 6 feet within “my bubble” I expect them to mask up and I will mask up too.

Dealing with the Public & Social Distancing

I work in a government office, where our essential services are provided Monday through Friday to a large number of people. My job requires dealing with the public and there’s no way around it. To help reduce the likelihood of exposure, my office has reduced public traffic and implemented social distancing guidelines including:

  • Daily business customers are required to conduct as much business as possible via electronic submittal platforms.
  • If customers must physically come to the office they must maintain a 6-foot distance.
  • A protective plastic barrier has been set up.
  • Customers are asked to call ahead to set up an appointment.

Frequent Sanitation

Sanitation and hand hygiene have become a top priority. Office staff have been diligently cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting commonly shared surfaces, as well as practicing good hand hygiene. To add to the sanitation, after-hours cleaning staff also clean and disinfect the office every night.

For employers, it’s important to make these cleaning and disinfecting policies known and to communicate to staff what’s expected. Likewise, cleaning products, including hand sanitizer, should be made readily available so that staff can adequately perform these sanitation and hygiene duties, and mitigate COVID-19 exposure by adhering to a strict sick policy.

Personal Responsibility

For employees, vulnerable and not, it’s important to realize your employer can’t do everything for you. You play a vital role in reducing your own exposure to COVID-19:

  • Practice good hand hygiene and strictly following sick policies.
  • All staff should frequently wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and, if soap and water are not readily available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Reduce the number of people you’re in close contact with
  • If you feel sick, choose to stay home, seek a medical professional’s advice, and avoid potentially spreading illness.

It’s not going to be 100% safe for vulnerable people in public as long as COVID-19 exists and there’s no vaccine for the new disease. So, at the core of my decision was – do I feel like it is “as safe as it ever will be” to return to the office?

For more on COVID-19 and the workplace, visit CDC’s Businesses & Employers Guidance.

Jasmine Hall, 30, is a native Montanan who lives in Bozeman with her boyfriend and 4-year-old daughter. She has a BA in journalism and media studies, previously worked as a newspaper reporter, and is Recording Supervisor at the Gallatin County Clerk & Recorder’s Office.