Seven Steps for Outfitter Operations in a COVID-19 World

Posted May 6, 2020

As states begin to reopen and federal lands follow suit, outdoor recreation providers are rapidly developing operational response strategies. Depending on which state you are operating in, your guidance may be different, as each state is putting its own spin on the gradual phasing process endorsed by the White House. AO has identified seven key steps you may take to open up operates as the country takes steps to relax the quarantine.

Steps to Reopening:

  1. Know the rules that affect you

  2. Connect with the affected community – S&R, health care, chamber of commerce

  3. Develop protocols for guests and staff

  4. Promote your protocols to agency administrators, state, and county authorities

  5. Develop and follow-through with protocol implementation plans

  6. Post your protocols clearly and inform your staff and guests

  7. Update your liability waiver form

When considering operational guidelines, prioritize your municipality or county guidelines, then your state directives, and finally federal reopening guidelines. Proactively engage local government and health care officials for your operating areas and focus on effective, achievable, and reasonable strategies that support protocols while running your programs. And keep in mind, this framework is available for you to adapt, or if appropriate where you operate, to disregard. Operational approaches in this coming season will be as diverse as the state governments’ approaches to reopening.

Know the Rules

The White House and Center for Disease Control have released guidance to states, Opening Up America Again, with three phases of re-opening. Many states that are reopening are following that three-phase approach, so you should be able to anticipate changes. Additionally, counties and municipalities may have unique and localized guidelines they expect businesses to follow. While many approaches will be similar, the timing of shifting from a more restrictive phase to a less restrictive phase is different for every state. There are several resources online which show each state is responding. One example is this resource from the New York Times.

Some counties and municipalities are applying to their  states for local variances from state guidance. In many cases, counties are looking to set different (usually looser) standards for medium and large venues, for gatherings, and for outdoor recreation. Be sure to check local rules and ensure that, if they are loosened, they are sanctioned by the state.

Finally, know what your permit administrator is expecting so you can meet their anticipated need. In many cases, administrators are asking operators to submit their Covid-19 operations plan, and though it may not be mandatory, it is advisable. Here is a sample form from the Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Connect with the Community

During the height of the pandemic, many gateway communities were concerned that visitation would stress their limited resources in terms of necessary infrastructure and health care systems. As you look toward operating, ensure that the systems you rely on are ready for you to resume activities. Connect with the local hospital, the chamber of commerce, and search and rescue. Let them know your intent and that you are developing operational guidelines that you will be willing to share.

Develop Protocols for Guests and Staff

Because there are so many different classes of guidelines that individual municipalities are using, and so many unique approaches that outfitters are using to meet them, the most efficient approach is for individual businesses, or local collectives, to come up with operational guidelines for their operating area.

Come up with protocols that demonstrate you are making a good-faith effort to meet external operational guidance. And, your protocols should be achievable. Ensure that both your staff and your guests understand what your protocols are for compliance.

While the following is not a comprehensive list, it is an outline for consideration. Generally speaking, AO encourages operators to create internal guidelines for the following situations, depending on their applicability:

Booking & screening – Consider prescreening efforts, including questions about health conditions, contact history, and origin of travel. In some cases, operators are asking guests to take their own temperatures before arriving or to self-isolate for a period before the trip. In other cases, they are screening for high-risk participants who may face more serious health impacts if they become infected.

Cleaning protocols – For facilities, gear, and transportation, develop protocols that minimize the potential for contamination, especially with repeated use. Some manufacturers and retailers, including NRS and MTI Lifejackets, have been promoting effective approaches to cleaning gear and are happy to share them.

Hygiene & Staff Monitoring – Have guidance on handwashing and personal hygiene for both guests and staff.

Social distancing and PPE for Staff & Guests – Develop clear precautions, trainings & policies around social interactions. Consider providing or requiring facemasks  when social distancing is not possible. Consider the payment interface and, if you use touchscreens to collect payment, what alternatives you may use. Consider sneeze guards at the counter. Occupancy can also be adjusted to discourage crowding. Consider more relaxed social distancing when running activities for families or closed groups that have already been in close proximity to each other.

Facilities Protocols – Consider approaches that enable your guests and staff to maintain social distancing and/or have PPE available when on your property. Adopt cleaning regimens for common areas, shared bathrooms, and lodging (if applicable).

Federal Resource Use – Have a plan that adapts your activity to meet the guidelines you are being asked to meet. Consider plans that address closed public bathrooms, parking, and crowds at the beginning and end of the trip. On trails, on rivers, or elsewhere, have a plan for how you maintain your own trip and how you interact with other resource users you may come across.

Activities Protocols – For each unique activity you provide, develop a set of guidelines that considers cleaning gear, social distancing and/or facemasks, and considers interactions between staff & guests.

Food & Beverage – If you provide food service, lay out any additional steps you are taking to ensure food safety.

Transportation - Consider achievable transportation strategies you can implement to minimize the potential for cross-contamination amongst guests on a trip, and between trips. Spacing, reduced capacity, sneeze shields, facemasks, and regular spraying/fogging/wiping interiors of vans and buses are all approaches being considered by various operators.

Staff Housing – If guides live in staff housing on-site, consider steps you can implement to minimize the potential for contamination and include plans for how you will adjust if an individual in staff housing becomes ill. The National Park Service has established protocols for NPS staff housing, which may be a good resource as you develop your own plan.

Evacuation and Separation – If your staff or a guest begin exhibiting signs and symptoms of illness, have a plan in place to contend with this. Consider how to isolate this person, care for their health, and take the necessary precautions to minimize the chance of infection for people in contact with the affected individual.

Promote Your Protocols

In many cases the arm of the government that is responsible for developing guidelines is not going to be able to address your specific activities directly. It is in your interest to take your protocols and share them with local and state governments, not only to help them by easing their workload, but also to gain support for a practice you would like to implement that is reasonable but may not be expressly permitted by the local authority. Governments are accepting protocols developed by industry sectors in many cases, even when they don’t align exactly with established protocols.

It will be helpful in engaging with your permitting authority to have the support and backing of your relevant governing bodies, especially the county and the state. Some national forests and national parks are pursuing extreme closure decisions that go far beyond federal, state, and local plans. Having support from the state will help you and your fellow operators encourage closed sites to reopen in a responsible way.

Post and Follow Protocols

One of the best ways to protect yourself from frivolous claims that may arise from this COVID crisis is to ensure that you post your protocols clearly, inform staff and guests of the changes in your operation as it pertains to their experience, and train staff to implement the new systems. It is important that you adopt a plan that is achievable. Setting too high a bar for your operation and being out of compliance with your own protocols, especially in a manner that is noticeable to your guests, is not advisable. It is important that expectations are clearly understood. Guests should be aware of precautions you have in place before they embark on their trip, and they should be aware of what is expected of them as participants.

Update your Liability Waiver / Verification of Assumption of Risk Form

Ensure that you are identifying Covid-19 as an inherent risk of your activity, as even following all the steps above cannot provide you or your guests with 100% assurance that they cannot contract the illness while they are in your care. Covid-19 is an inherent risk in every activity people choose to participate in now, and your operation is no different. That sentiment should be clear in your waiver as participants review and sign.

In conclusion

To be clear, this article constitutes advice for operators and is in no way binding guidance. Local expectations may vary dramatically. There may be no expectation in your locality for additional measures at all. Adapt this framework to your local situation as it is most suitable.

Like you, America Outdoors wants to see programs up and operating. Take advantage of your membership and reach out to AO staff at any time you are hitting reopening roadblocks

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