Picture This: A Way to Get People Back to Work, and the World Back to Life, More Safely and Efficiently

By Doug Dobie

It’s an understatement to say we are living in a most uncertain time.

Globally, we are experiencing a severe public health crisis with unprecedented shelter in place and social distancing responsiveness. The economic cost of protecting the most vulnerable among us is incalculable. In the U.S., on our current trajectory, we could spike near 20 percent unemployment by late summer, the highest unemployment numbers since the great depression.

Yet, without testing or a vaccine, we have no definitive way to determine when it will be safe for everyone to assume some sort of normal.

Uncertainty = Risk + Exposure

In a frenzied rush to shelter and protect the public, government and public health leaders devised an essential vs. non-essential yardstick to “flatten the curve.” In the heat of the moment, there are obvious challenges and shortcomings with such a one-dimensional evaluation tool.

Essential and non-essential is subjective sure, but more to the point, its remedy – shelter-in-place and social distancing – is applied across both unsafe and safe situations.

There’s a more effective way for civic leaders to assess risk and evaluate readiness for people to return work, and that is to incorporate safety as a second dimension.

While an Essential and Safety Framework will bring more clarity and insight, it is also much more actionable. Leaders can plan across four activity zones addressing each zone individually, applying differing degrees of control and empowerment to mitigate both public health and economic risk and provide constituents with greater reassurance.

Thinking across two dimensions in four zones
Balancing Public Health and Economic Renewal

Zone I: State empowers individuals to be responsible.
General healthy life activities, like exercise, are in Zone I. Beaches, parks, shared common areas are essential for people cramped-up in tight quarters. These need to be made available with mask and social distancing practices. Grocery warehouses such as Costco, were in Zone II in the last few weeks of March. Customers packed together hoarding water and fighting each other for toilet paper. More recently, Costco has moved its safety practices toward Zone I: limiting members in the store, placing six foot spacing markers on the floor, routing people in and out of the store, plastic protective shielding for cashiers and staff, identifying products out of stock before entering the store, all making an oft times adventurous Costco shopping experience seem much safer.

Zone II: State is accountable and will provide permissions.
The media and public perception that hospitals are being overrun with COVID-19 cases, equipment and staff are in short supply, and it’s a pandemic war zone. For most of the 5,000 hospitals in the US, it is not the case; in fact, it’s it is the opposite.

Patient census is down 30 to 60 percent in the majority of hospitals. Potential patients are staying away because hospitals are viewed as unsafe. Elective surgeries need to be treated as Zone I and they are sitting in Zone II. Hospitals need elective surgeries to operate profitability. Public Service Announcements and awareness programs are needed to reassure potential patients that most hospitals are safe and open for business.  States needs to provide permissions for elective surgeries.

Zone III: Individuals are both responsible to their peers and accountable.
So called non-essential businesses according to our virus protection public health edict, are quite essential to the economic crawl back from the abyss. Cultural norms have been adopted over the past 5 weeks. Safe hygiene, face masks, and social distancing are norms that can be enforced by each business or organization. Civic leaders need to empower the Zone III activities to come back into peoples’ lives. Small businesses need to get back to work, serving customers, employing staff, paying healthcare premiums, and activating their vendors and suppliers.

Zone IV: State needs to restrict these activities.
What is essential and non-essential is a moving target. However, unsafe is unsafe. Activities that require close proximity and interaction with others, may need be on the back burner for a while. State and local government leaders are likely to control spontaneous slam dancing and mosh pit for the foreseeable future. Concerts, sporting events, conventions, graduation ceremonies may look fundamentally different over the next 12-18 months. Sports and concerts will likely come back before the painted faces and packed houses will.

Using the zone quadrants, we will begin mapping businesses, associations, and activities across the framework quadrants. These will vary by geographic location and local consideration. However, the framework can be used by state and local leaders to evaluate their local public health and economics circumstances.


Doug Dobie is CEO of Dobie Associates, a leading business strategy firm specializing in healthcare, technology, and public safety consulting. Doug also consults for Aurore, a strategy frameworks and analytics solutions provider. 

Dobie Associates is a strategic partner of BrandingBusiness.