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Opinion

The coronavirus threat is growing. Don't be scared, be prepared.

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“Now it’s the time to prepare. We’re in a phase of preparedness for a potential pandemic.”

“ … disruption to everyday life may be severe.”

These statements from the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Feb. 25 should cause all of us in the credit union industry to take notice. It seems inevitable at this point that the impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus will be felt globally, in both our health and our economy.

Organizations of all stripes are beginning to prepare for the possibility that the coronavirus could bring a high number of infections to the United States or impact business conditions to the point of a recession. To mitigate the impact on your institution, preparedness for both your headquarters and branch operations should be considered.

While there are significant steps your credit union should be taking now to holistically cover your business operations, there are specific actions you must take to ready your branch locations. Interactions with the public, the handling of currency and increased financial demand from the fear of recession are some of the unique factors that differentiate between preparedness at the branch level and being prepared at headquarters. There are specific steps you should take now to prepare for various scenarios that may occur from this threat and some steps that will not be necessary until the COVID-19 impact becomes more of a reality.

As encouraged by the WHO and CDC, now is the time to prepare, before the threat increases. For your branches, this will include preparing physical items, your employees, and your emergency procedures.

A front-line defense

In order to maintain branch operations as the risk of a public outbreak heightens, staff should be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) to remain as safe as possible while working. PPE is quickly becoming more difficult to purchase and it is strongly advised that you stockpile the appropriate gear for a core group of employees in each location. Some items you may want are:

· Niosh-approved N95 respirator masks
· Goggles
· Disposable medical gloves
· Proper cleaning and hand-washing supplies

Institutions should determine the number of people who will need PPE and then purchase enough to last a minimum of 30 days.

Prepare to overcommunicate

Now is the time to start communicating with employees They are likely concerned and confused about COVID-19 and what it may mean for their work. Hearing that your organization is already preparing to maintain operations and provide for their well-being will go a long way to calm nerves.

Plan to provide regular updates as the situation evolves and as adjustments to day-to-day operations are needed. With the stock market falling due to fears of global economic recession, your members may also have questions about their finances. If possible, provide your employees with answers to anticipated questions to lessen the stress of dealing with an anxious public.

Now is the time to also update your pandemic procedures to plan how you will handle business continuity if infection rates worsen. It is very likely that your workforce will be impacted and you will have numerous employees unable to work. To maximize effectiveness of your remaining workforce and PPE gear, you may need to consider plans to close some locations and focus operations in key branches. With COVID-19 being a highly infectious disease, develop plans that will minimize contact with the public and potentially sick individuals as much as possible. This may include eliminating or limiting member activity within the building and using the drive-through teller.

The burning question: How to handle cash

Employees should wear PPE gear at all times when interacting with the public and handling currency transactions. China’s central bank has taken the extreme measure of burning currency that has come in contact with infected areas after concerns were raised that the virus can potentially live on surfaces for several days or more. While hopefully the United States will not have to go as far as destroying or quarantining money, your branches will need to have a plan for how to handle money that is deposited.

As with other types of emergencies, such as the threat of hurricanes, you will also need to prepare for members seeking to withdraw large amounts of money over short periods of time. Follow similar procedures to ensure branches are able to support this increased demand on your financial resources. During national disasters, some credit unions fill their ATMs to capacity to handle the higher traffic — which, in this case, will also aid in lessening the contact with the public.

Good communication with members will be of paramount importance. Take the time now to develop some templated language that can be posted at branches and sent to members to explain changes to your services. As you know, people can become extremely upset and worried if they feel they are losing access to their money and valuables, so transparency and consideration for their concerns throughout this threat are essential to maintaining good relations with your members.

Time is money

While the items listed above are not an exhaustive look at what you need to prepare, these actions can get your credit union well on its way to being ready for the potential of a COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic here in the United States.

Take the time now to huddle with your leadership team and talk over what you need to have in place to be prepared. By appreciating the threat and taking appropriate measures now, you are helping secure the success of your credit union through this potential crisis. Your employees and members will thank you for being an institution that cares.

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