Confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States continue to climb, yet nearly 20 percent of employees who were working remotely back in April 2020 are no longer working from home. Interestingly, the majority of workers aren’t concerned about being exposed to COVID-19 at their workplace. According to a recent Gallup poll, 55 percent said they were “not too/not at all concerned” about the risk of being exposed to the virus.

While it’s good news that employees feel safe at their place of employment, it could lead to some lax mask-wearing habits. To complicate the matter further, many employers are still figuring out their COVID-19 policies.

Do employees need to be masked at their desks or just when walking in common areas? Should they be worn in conference rooms? Should people remask between bites of food at lunch?

To help businesses understand how they can shape their organization’s protocols around mask wearing, SimpleSense sat down with Girelle Guzmán, Director of Operations at Newlab—NYC’s singular working community of engineers, investors, and entrepreneurs—to learn about their recent policy changes about face coverings and where/when people need to be masked.

The Iterative Process of Creating a Policy

It’s important to realize that Newlab didn’t create their COVID-19 policies overnight. It’s been an iterative process that the team amends as new information comes forth about the virus. Moreover, Newlab took a double-pronged approach to drafting each change they made, conducting research with an internal team and then also hiring outside consultants to ensure the safety of its members. For business decision-makers who are still unsure of their own organization’s policies, it can be helpful to see another entity’s progression.

“Overnight, we had to read a lot of policy about COVID-19. We worked in tandem with an external legal team to craft those initial policies,” remembers Girelle about the early days of COVID-19. “It wasn’t clear that COVID was an airborne disease yet. But we also understood that that conclusion was preliminary, and that there would be research coming out eventually that may support it being airborne. So, we decided to take a kind of a middle-of-the-road approach where if you were coming into the building or walking around in the common areas you had to wear a mask.”

But there was another smart aspect of this middle-of-the-road policy. Newlab also had a person on staff that had masks for members who forgot theirs or just didn’t have one in those early days of mask shortages. Another change Newlab made was removing a significant number of desks and seating areas to eliminate clusters of people in order to maintain safe distances between those in the space.

“There were a variety of updates about COVID-19 that prompted us to continue to update our policy,” recalls Girelle. “The first one was the confirmation that COVID-19 was definitely airborne. But the second one was what really drove us to change—it was the rapidly rising infection rate, hospitalization rate, and death rate in New York City. And third, we began to receive more emails from members being very concerned about their safety and communicating how they don’t feel safe in the space. And, that perception of safety is really important. It was the mix of these three catalysts that made us take a more hardline approach on mask wearing.”

There is no doubt that wearing masks at a desk is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but when it saves lives and allows people to work, it’s worth it. 

“We also worked with an air-quality consultant to look at the entire building,” Girelle notes. “They identified what the areas of risk were, examined the building layout, and HVAC system, including the number of fresh air units available (these units consistently push fresh air into the building). The biggest risk areas were conference rooms, especially because they don’t have windows, and there are multiple teams of people in there sharing the room throughout the day. Working with our air-quality consultant, we were able to identify an old technology called bipolar ionization. It has been found to be effective at killing viruses similar to COVID-19. We recently installed bipolar ionizers in all of our high-risk areas such as our conference rooms.”

In order for Newlab to ensure the safety of its workplace, community members are required to wear a face covering in all common areas and work spaces, even when proper distance is maintained, until further notice. Further, they’re encouraging all of their members to minimize in-person interactions and maintain distance.

From an infrastructure standpoint, Newlab has equipped their HVAC units across the building with MERV-13 filters. If you’re unfamiliar, MERV stands for “minimum efficiency reporting value.” This rating measures how effectively a filter stops contaminants from passing to the air stream. The higher the MERV rating, the more effective the filter is at trapping small particles. MERV-13 filters are often used in in-patient hospital care rooms and operating rooms. 

Have These Policies Worked for NewLab?

Newlab supports over 800 entrepreneurs, engineers, and inventors, and of course, is the go-to workplace for these people. While there have been confirmed cases of potential COVID-19 exposure at Newlab, there have been zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 spread at the facility.

However, it’s also essential to note that Newlab’s policy requires that members refrain from entering the facility if they are feeling sick, particularly with COVID-19-like symptoms. Through consistent digital communication with its members, there was a community culture that was built and fostered that focused on safety. Newlab also has EMTs on staff at the entrance to take its member’s temperature before entering the building, and ensure that every person who enters the building has also completed a health declaration to confirm absence of COVID-19 symptoms

What’s Next for Newlab

The Newlab community continues to grow and thrive amid the coronavirus pandemic, growing by approximately 17% since March 2020. As the COVID-19 infection rate continues to rise in New York City, Newlab plans to remain committed to facilitating a collaborative, inspiring, and safe place for its members through actively updating and implementing policies and deploying technologies that can support a healthy and work environment.

Learn more about Newlab membership benefits and how to join our member community of over 800 experts and innovators applying transformative technology to solve the world’s biggest challenges.