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So, your small business has been listed as a COVID exposure site: what next?

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Confusion, anger, frustration.

No one saw the snap ACT lockdown coming until it was here and business as usual came to a halt. Having endured lockdown 1.0, some businesses were well set up to quickly pivot into online mode—but what if your business was named as an exposure site?

For the owner of Subsdance, Charlie Wan, her immediate reaction was panic and confusion.

On Tuesday 10 August her small business became one of Canberra’s first COVID-19 close contact exposure sites.

As her phone lit up with endless text messages from clients asking what it meant for them, Charlie’s confusion only grew when she went onto the ACT Health website and couldn’t find what to do next.

“I waited until 9 o’clock in the morning and I called the ACT Health Business Liaison Line and quite rightly so, they are inundated,” she says. “There’s a reason they call these unprecedented times—it is crazy for everyone.”

Waiting on hold for seven hours but unable to get through, Charlie continued to receive panicked messages.

“By 10 o’clock in the morning, I think I’d received almost 50 emails, 35 phone calls, WhatsApp messages and Facebook messages,” says Charlie. “It’s me running the business, I’ve got a seven week old baby, I couldn’t keep up.”

“What do you do when you’re named as a business exposure site and what do you do next?  Because the panic is real.”

Instead of letting the severity of the situation overwhelm her, Charlie took 15 minutes to gather her thoughts and decided she would approach the issue the same way she approaches everything in her business:

“With clear communication, transparency, compassion and by reminding myself and everyone else that there are human beings behind this situation.”

Charlie formulated a five-step plan and made an executive decision to put out a message on social media explaining the facts she was aware of, including ACT Health directives.

“If there’s even a one percent chance that we could hurt our wider community by not listening to what we’re being told today, it’s just not worth the risk,” says Charlie.

“I actually lost my grandfather to COVID…he was in the UK and I think that really added that extra importance to me.”

Four days after she sent out personalised emails to all of the Subsdance clients, including information about close, casual and secondary contacts, Charlie received a phone call from ACT Health advising her what to do next.

She said, surprisingly, she had already done many of the things on the list.

“Then we decided to be productive, because there’s nothing more debilitating than feeling helpless,” says Charlie.

As 70 people quarantined from the Subsdance exposure, Charlie’s empathy and sympathy turned towards those hit hard by the pandemic, inspiring her to go above and beyond for her little community.

Setting up a Facebook page where people in quarantine could anonymously ask for help from others located within their 5km radius, as well as a fundraiser, Charlie was overwhelmed with positive messages which included messages for the infected person.

“When the person contacted me, they were bereft,” says Charlie. “They felt guilt, they felt shame and even though all those things are irrational, I can understand why they felt it because of the stigma around it [COVID].”

“I thought, ‘we can show this person that we’re here for them and they’re a part of this family’  and therefore part of the fundraiser is going to go towards ensuring that they are able to … better focus on healing and taking their time rather than trying to make money straight away.”

Raising more than $2000, part of the money has also gone towards more than 60 care packages for those unable to leave the house.

“It wasn’t necessarily essential items,” says Charlie “We had loads of little snacks, we had lip balm, we had funky socks, we had little unicorn hand sanitisers because our mascot is a unicorn … I also put in a handwritten note.”

Picture courtesy of Jessie Jacob.

Coming out the other side ‘stronger than ever’, Charlie says the recognition she has received has been incredibly humbling but as she looks to the future and the possibility of continued lockdowns, she wants to help other small businesses who aren’t sure what to do next.

With the fundamental belief that empathy and community spirit is going to help bring relief to the small businesses affected, she is making a vlog about the experience to dispel some of the fear surrounding the pandemic and to provide some comfort.

For any small business owners uncertain of the future, she has very simple advice: remember you will get through this.

“Remember to be kind and compassionate to others, to ACT Health, your clients, but most importantly yourself…the most important thing is following the ACT Health directive to keep your community and yourself safe,” says Charlie.

“You just have to trust in yourself and trust in your ability to be a brilliant business owner, which you already are.”

Charlie Wan’s Small Business Blueprint

This list comes from one experience and may not be applicable in all situations. As always please ensure you follow the directives of ACT Health/State Government 

1. TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND SIT STILL FOR A MOMENT

It is so easy to let the panic, the fear, the uncertainty of these times seep into you. When the shock sets in and the calls start coming in, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Give yourself a moment, you have time. Taking a step back from your immediate emotional response will allow for better decision making—that keeps you feeling calm and in control. Your staff and clients need a voice of clarity. You are that voice. Allow yourself a moment to stabilise.

2. RESEARCH AND UNDERSTAND THE FACTS, SEEK CREDIBLE INFORMATION

Above all else, you have a responsibility to present factual, logical, and practical information that is not encumbered with personal opinion. Ensure that you are doing your research, make sure you are across the information provided by ACT Health and be certain you have a working understanding of the legal and health requirements. Misinformation does not help the situation—whatever your personal beliefs, strive to present facts only and lead by example by following directives. Inciting unrest and fear simply does not help anyone.

3. COMMUNICATE CLEARLY, HONESTLY AND TRANSPARENTLY

If you have a mailing list, after gathering the correct information and ensuring you are ready for the response, send out a clear, comprehensive, and honest email. If you have social media, keep people informed and communicate. If you are able to, keep open lines of communication open for your clients to reach a human being they can connect to for information. Highlight the facts, what to do next and the actions you will be taking as a business. The helplines are often inundated and if you can be a calm, clear voice in the chaos, your clients will appreciate you keeping them informed. Particularly for staff and clients who are forced to quarantine, it can feel deeply isolating, reaching out even via social media posts provides solace.

4. BE COMPASSIONATE

My business model is built on embracing empathy, humanising the business, and recognising the people behind the services we provide. Don’t let the stress of the situation make you forget your compassion. Be gentle and understanding as much as you can, to your clients and staff, who are often scared; but also to yourself. There is no guidebook for these times, and everyone is doing their best. Take time out if you feel yourself getting grumpy and remember focusing your energy into making someone’s day better creates positive energy that will be returned ten-fold. Do not fall into the trap of blame, anger, or guilt; particularly towards the people who contracted COVID. It isn’t anyone’s fault, including yours.

5. FOLLOW THROUGH AND BE PROACTIVE

It feels easy to be frozen into a state of helplessness, but instead keep beavering away at the things you can control. Understand what ACT Health requires of you to reopen your business. Even if that won’t happen straight away, put in the work so when the time comes you are ready. You will need a certificate to prove that your premises has been professionally deep cleaned; book the clean in or at least get a quote. Your staff and employees may need help and support getting funding or grants in these times, or you may want to research the financial help out there for your business.

For Subsdance, creating the fundraiser, care package drive and online classes gave me a way to focus my energy and over-thinking onto making magic rather than the unknown. I made promises to my community, and I do everything in my power to follow through, always. I acknowledge the privilege I have that my business is still able to run in these times and I know not everyone is in this position, but please, as much as you can, focus on what you CAN do, reach out for help and remember you CAN do it.

Feature image: Captavitae Photography

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