This year has been challenging for a number of reasons, not least of which is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the workplace. After months of isolation and remote operations, many employers and employees are eagerly looking forward to opportunities during the approaching holiday season to come together (in person or virtually) to share festive spirit and reflect on the good times from this past year despite the setbacks. Nevertheless, we remain in the midst of a global pandemic, and many communities are experiencing an increase in the number of cases. While employers may welcome the opportunity to celebrate and strengthen employee morale this holiday season, they may want to assess the state of the pandemic in their respective communities and consider practical strategies for making holiday gatherings and celebrations as safe as possible.
The CDC’s Risk Factors for Events
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has offered guidance on holiday celebrations during the pandemic, which employers can consider when planning their company parties and other holiday gatherings. While not directed specifically to the workplace, the CDC guidance offers helpful insight into the spectrum of risk factors an employer should consider when planning company events. The CDC recommends that organizers review the CDC’s previous COVID-19 guidance for events and gatherings, which categorizes event-based risk based on the nature and size of the event, including factors such as:
- The current level of community spread in the area.
In this regard, employers may want to consult the applicable state and local health department websites, which generally report current data and trends regarding daily COVID-19 case counts, rates of positivity based on testing, etc.
- The duration of the event.
- The number of people who will attend the event.
While the CDC does not propose any specific limitations on the size of an event or gathering, the CDC recommends that attendance be limited to a level that allows for the ability to “reduce or limit contact between attendees.” Employers also may want to consult state and local COVID-19 orders and guidelines, however, as some states may impose restrictions on the size of gatherings. (Ogletree Deakins offers complimentary charts that track many of the state and local COVID-19 requirements.)
- The extent to which attendees are traveling from other locations and the places from which they are traveling.
The CDC states that “[g]atherings with attendees who are traveling from different places pose a higher risk than gatherings with attendees who live in the same area.” Employers may want to consider structuring holiday events around individual offices, work groups, or other such factors to limit the number of employees traveling to the event from other communities.
- The general compliance of attendees with risk mitigation measures, both prior to and during the event.
The CDC states that there is an increased risk at gatherings of persons who have not reliably adhered to recommended measures, such as “social distancing (staying at least 6 feet apart), mask wearing, hand washing, and other prevention behaviors” prior to attending the event. Similar to measures in place in their workspaces, employers may want to consider emphasizing the importance of social distancing, hygiene, and the use of face coverings during holiday events. Employers also may wish to consider utilizing screening protocols, such as symptom and/or temperature screenings, for attendees arriving at the event.
Employees who have been deemed ineligible to enter the workplace, such as those in quarantine due to potential exposures or higher risk activities during travel, similarly may need to be excluded from in-person attendance at company-sponsored holiday gatherings. The CDC also recommends that individuals at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, as well as those who live or work with individuals at increased risk, should avoid larger gatherings. However, employers may want to take caution in excluding such individuals from company-sponsored activities, as involuntarily excluding employees on account of medical conditions could trigger a claim that the employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in certain circumstances.
The CDC’s Suggestions for Hosting Events
The CDC also provides helpful suggestions for hosting the event itself. In the context of holiday gatherings, employers may want to consider outdoor activities where feasible and permitted by local weather, or indoor venues in which there is sufficient space to maximize social distancing and proper ventilation. Employers may want to consider providing hand sanitizer stations, masks, or other supplies to help encourage good hygiene practices of attendees. Employers also may wish to remind employees of the risks associated with COVID-19, and the safety practices expected of them by the employer, prior to the event. Some employers may request attendees to sign a form acknowledging (1) the holiday event is voluntary and (2) the risks inherent in any group gathering, though the impact and enforceability of risk acknowledgments and waivers vary based on context and state law.
Finally, employers may want to consider the activities offered at the company-sponsored event. For example, the CDC notes activities such as “singing, chanting, or shouting” create an increased risk of transmission, and costumes or holiday outfits should not be worn at the expense of proper face coverings. If food and drink are served at the event, employers should take into account the risk of contact transmission and consider avoiding pot-luck style meals or self-service food stations.
Takeaways for Employers
While there are myriad considerations to hosting a holiday gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC guidance offers employers valuable insight into ways to enhance safety measures at company-sponsored events during the holidays. While some employers may prefer to hold virtual events in lieu of in-person gatherings, employers that choose to host in-person events may want to refer to the CDC guidance, as well as state and local resources, to help weigh the associated risks and implement measures to create a safe, healthy, and enjoyable environment for all in attendance.
For more information regarding the latest COVID-19 developments, including mitigation strategies, employee screening, and government guidelines, please visit the Ogletree Deakins Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center.