Certain types of professional offices have been considered “essential” during the stay at home mandate of the state of California and local units of government. In other words, these particular businesses or professional offices have been operational on some level during the stay at home and broader business shutdown phase of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in California and in our local communities. We now appear to be creeping towards a juncture at which some additional types of businesses will be permitted to open their doors in comings weeks, albeit with some likely limitations or directives on how they operate.
The gradual reopening of businesses, at least to some degree and including professional offices of different types, certainly is welcome news. The reopening of professional offices that have largely been closed, and the expansion of operations at offices already deemed to provide essential services, does present a set of important points that must be considered. Chief among them is understanding the legal liability of professional offices of different types to their clients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Types of Professional Offices Likely to Be Part of the “First Wave” of Opening
There are certain types of professional offices that are likely to be part of what fairly can be called the “first wave” of businesses to open, at least to some degree. Because there are so many different types of professional offices impacted by the stay at home and existing business restriction mandates associated with COVID-19, presenting an exhaustive list of “first wave” business isn’t practical, perhaps even possible. A list of some of these businesses can be helpful, nonetheless. Such a list provides some guidance as to the broader swath of professional offices that are apt to be able to open their doors more widely in comming weeks.
- Law firms
- Accounting firms
- Insurance brokerages and agencies
- Banks and other financial institutions
- Advertising, public relations, marketing agencies
When it comes to the reopening of professional offices (at least to some degree), noticeably absent from this first wave list are doctors’ officers of all types, dental offices of all types, eye care offices of all types, and veterinary clinics. These types of professional operations are being considered for reopening. However, because of the close contact between people in these settings, the general consensus in the early spring of 2020 is that a more substantial reopening of these offices is not likely to be during the first wave.
Of course, these types of operations have remained operational to some degree because they are deemed essential business. For example, dental offices have been and will remain operational for emergency care. However, a further opening of dental offices for such things as elective cosmetic services is not likely something that will be a first wave reopening priority.
California Legal Duty of a Professional Office to a Client
A professional office has the same essential legal duty that a retail business has to its patrons. A professional office, a business providing professional services, must adhere to the dictates of the liability mandates established by what is known in California (and across the United States) as the “doctrine of premises liability.”
In basic terms, the doctrine of premises liability is the legal requirement that a professional office maintains its space in a reasonably safe condition for workers, clients, vendors, and other people who may have reason to access the property. A professional business doesn’t need to make its space completely safe, but rather reasonably safe. A professional office must take those steps other similarly situated businesses would take to create, maintain, or restore a premise or property to a reasonably safe condition.
In a retail setting, a prime example used to illustrate what a business needs today is the often-used hypothetical of spilled milk in an aisle of a grocery store. A grocer must ensure that the milk is cleaned up in a reasonable time period, which in that type of situation is virtually immediately.
An example in a professional office setting might be torn carpeting or broken tile flooring that creates a hazard. These require prompt corrective action to protect visitors to the office.
A similar legal obligation for a professional business exists to protect workers, clients, vendors, and others from exposure to a COVID-19 contamination. The ins and outs of this important legal duty or responsibility must be closely considered by a professional office during the coronavirus pandemic.
Keeping Clients Safe in Professional Offices: The Need for Proactive COVID-19 Contamination Prevention and Rapid Remediation
There are day to day tasks that a professional office must undertake as part of a comprehensive effort to proactively prevent COVID-19 contamination in the space. These include regularly using an appropriate disinfectant to make a reasonable effort to keep surfaces and objects (doorknobs, water faucets, and so forth) as clean and contaminate free as possible.
With that said, when it comes to reasonable efforts to proactively prevent COVID-19 contamination from harming workers, clients, vendors, and others, routine professional coronavirus cleaning and disinfection is also ultimately likely to be considered not only a safety but also a legal necessity.
If a business office learns that a person with COVID-19 has been on the premises, a rapid professional remediation is a reasonable response. We’ve already seen examples of professional rapid COVID-19 cleaning and disinfection in action at essential businesses during the stay at home period. Ideally, the business office closes its space, obtains prompt coronavirus cleaning and disinfection from a professional, and is able to reopen in what really amounts to no time at all.