China Frontline June 2020 - Ahead of the Curve: what employers need to know when re-opening offices?

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Chinese government has issued a number of guidelines on the epidemic control and prevention to employers and the general public.  What one can observe from the development of these guidelines is that China gradually lifts its temporary containment measures (e.g. school closures, transport bans, workplace shutdowns, etc.) for areas of lower infection risk; nevertheless, for areas that remain or are re-elevated to be medium-risk or high-risk, stringent measures continue to apply. For example, the risk level of some areas in Beijing has recently been raised with scale-up public health restriction measures in place, due to the fresh outbreak of COVID-19 that took place since 11th June, leading to over 200 confirmed cases reported so far.

In this series of China Frontline, we will focus on the following questions that employers have been seeking advice in the recent period of time:

i) What should employers know when re-opening their offices in China?
ii) Can and should an employer ask its employees to have COVID-19 testing?
iii) Must employees wear facial masks in the workplace?  

I. What practical steps should an employer consider when re-opening an office?

While re-opening the office, the primary obligation of the employer is to protect the health and life of employees by ensuring safe and hygienic working conditions.

The government has issued Guidelines on COVID-19 prevention and control for employers' office reopening in April 2020 (Hereinafter the "April Guidelines").[1]  According to the April Guidelines,


Employers based in low-risk areas are recommended to: 

  • keep track of employees' travel history. If employees return from areas of high-risk or medium-risk areas or abroad, more stringent health management measures should be taken; if employees return from low-risk areas, those who pass the temperature check should be allowed to work as usual. 
  • check the employee’s health status; 
  • maintain a safe working environment, including keeping the offices ventilated, providing sanitation kits, etc.;
  • reduce group activities; 
  • educate employees about COVID-19 prevention and instruct them to wear face mask scientifically; and
  • ensure the emergency response capacity. 

For employers who are based in medium-risk or high-risk areas, more stringent measures should be adopted in addition to the above, including for example retaining flexible working hours/methods, setting an isolation area in the workplace; etc. 

  • Employers whose offices are based in low-risk areas

On 18 June 2020, the State Council issued the Circular on the Issuing of Guidelines for the Normalization of Prevention and Control of COVID-19 in Key Areas, Key Units and Key Locations of the Low-Risk Areas during Summer[2] (hereinafter the "June Guidelines"), which applies to areas of low risk and focuses more on mitigating the risk of COVID-19 across the general population over the long term. According to the June Guidelines, businesses in low-risk areas are recommended to comply with the following key measures, which are in line with the existing April Guidelines but with more detailed instructions:

Health Monitoring:

Businesses should establish a staff health monitoring system, e.g. asking the employee to self-declare their health status daily and seek medical attention in a timely manner if suspicious symptoms occur in the workplace.

No temperature test is required for visitors and staff entering the companies.

Accountability policies:

Businesses should prepare for workplace emergency response, enhance its responsibility in the workplace safety, and strengthen personnel health training.

Office safety measures:

Businesses should put in place anti-epidemic materials such as masks, hand sanitizers, disinfectants, etc., strengthen the ventilation, cleaning and disinfection measures in the offices, indoor public activity areas and employee dormitories, etc. 

In addition, employees are no longer required to wear facial masks when ventilating and maintaining more than 1-meter social distance; if centralised air-conditioning system is used, its sanitation should be ensured, etc.

Working flexibility

Businesses are generally encouraged to adopt policies to allow for flexible working hours, home-office working, working-zone separation, etc., to minimise crowds.   

The Guidelines also provide industry-specific recommendations to businesses across various walks of life, e.g. building managers, hotels, supermarkets, restaurants, banks, parks, etc.

  • Employers whose offices are based in medium-risk or high-risk areas

Businesses should also keep in mind that, the above measures are subject to the dynamic development of the risk level of an area. Once the risk level of an area is raised higher, original stringent preventive measures will apply instead.

As mentioned, Beijing has witnessed a sudden increase in the infected cases within several days recently. As a result, Beijing announces scale-up preventive measures to be taken, some of which are listed as follows:[3] 

Sterilization measures in the place of business:

Businesses should strictly enforce the epidemic prevention measures in catering stores, unit canteens and other places, comprehensively standardise the implementation of environmental killing disinfection and strengthen monitoring, and close all underground cold and humid business places. The employees in the above places must wear masks and gloves.

Travel restriction and partial lockdown:

Strict travel ban is imposed on residents in the medium-/high-risk areas in Beijing. For others who need to leave Beijing, they must have a negative reading on the COVID-19 test taken within 7 days. 

Community partial lockdown measures are re-enforced, and complete lockdown measures are taken to areas of high risk. Non-residents and external vehicles are prohibited from entering communities of medium/high risk.

Safety measures in office:

Public places such as business buildings, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants, factories, construction sites, stores, etc. and fitness venues shall put in place measures including temperature detection, daily ventilation and disinfection, and health QR code inspection, etc. Masks must be worn in close social contact less than 1 meter, in densely populated and crowded enclosed places.

Working flexibility:

Businesses should reduce the arrival rate of office buildings, encourage flexible work such as remote and home-based work, and encourage off-peak commute.

Under the condition of strict implementation of various prevention and control measures, meetings of less than 100 people can be held or video conferences can be held. 

II. Employee Testing: Should I require employees to be tested? Which types of testing can we use? What testing approaches are commonly being applied in China?

The general rule for testing is that, unless an employee is required under relevant local regulations and rules, testing should be conducted on a voluntary basis with the employee's explicit consent.

Requirements for COVID-19 testing vary in different provinces/cities in China. For instance, Shanghai government requires people from abroad or in close contact with the confirmed/suspected cases to conduct the testing and encourages organisations to apply to local health authorities for COVID-19 tests for their employees.[4]While in some cities, e.g. Beijing and Guangzhou, the following people are required by local governments to conduct the COVID-19 test:

  • Visitors from abroad
  • Visitors from high-risk areas
  • Patients staying the hospitals with relevant symptoms (fever, etc.)
  • People having close contact with COVID-19 patients
  • People identified as of risks during the port quarantine inspection
  • Staff of specific units, e.g. public security and judicial supervision units, mental health and medical institutions, social welfare and pension institutions, maternal and child service institutions, educational institutions, etc.[5]

Therefore, if your employees fall into the above classification, you could be required or encouraged to have your employees tested for public health purposes in accordance with local administrative policies. 

In addition, employers bear general obligations to ensure workplace safety. Depending on the case-by-case analysis on the necessity to ensure workplace safety, an employer may consider mandating a licensed COVID-19 institution to conduct the testing for its employees. 

Approach to COVID-19 test in China: Only the authorized labs (i.e. hospitals or CDC labs) can provide COVID-19 testing. In each city, there is a list of such labs published and maintained by the health authorities. Whoever needs testing can make an appointment with one of the labs to do the COVID-19 test.  Tests can be carried out in the lab or in the workplace (if it involves large number of employees, e.g. school personnel).

III. Wearing Masks: Does China require individuals to wear facial masks? 

Yes, in some cases.

The Chinese government issued Guidelines on wearing masks scientifically for the public.[6] According to the guidelines, people under the following circumstances are not recommended to wear masks: 

  • stay at home,
  • outdoors,
  • no crowds, and
  • well-ventilated.

The public is advised to carry along masks when in crowded places such as offices, shopping malls, restaurants, workshops and, public transport. People in high-risk areas should wear surgical masks all the time when entering such places, while those in medium-risk and low-risk areas need to wear medical masks when in contact with others at a distance of less than 1 meter.

Those who have cold symptoms such as coughing or sneezing, or who live with personnel in quarantine or that have recovered from the COVID-19 and been discharged from the hospital, are suggested to wear disposable medical or surgical masks.

People working in places such as hospitals, train terminals, airports, prisons, and nursing homes, and people of suspected cases, confirmed cases or in close contact with the patient, need to wear surgical masks or respirators of grade KN95/N95 or above.

[1]  (in Chinese only).

[2] (in Chinese only).

[3] (in Chinese only). 

[4] (in Chinese only).

[5];; (all in Chinese only).

[6] (in Chinese only).

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