In the Madison warehouse of Dunlap & Kyle, forklifts honk their way through the heavy scent of rubber amid 250,000 square feet of consumer and commercial grade tires. But the outbreak began in in a wood-paneled office of general manager Adam Waldrup.
In late March, he developed cold-like symptoms, got tested and found out he had COVID-19.
“It’s just so hard to figure out the source,” he says. “We have so many people in and out of here. We have traveling salesmen, which at that point we’d brought in. But we deliver tires, so there’s just no telling.”
Most of the people at the tire distributor in Madison didn’t take COVID-19 very seriously. Then the virus ripped through their office, sickening a dozen employees and even more of their family members.
They’re back at work now, hoping for a post-outbreak rebound. And their experience provides a cautionary tale as other companies get back to business as usual.
Confusion over symptoms
After Waldrup’s diagnosis, the corporate office in Batesville, Miss., abruptly messaged everyone in Madison to pack up their stuff, go home and get tested. But it was already too late. Waldrup’s wife, 2-year-old son and mother-in-law fell ill.
The virus had also infected a majority of the sales team, which sits in a bullpen of cubicles just outside Waldrup’s office, often meeting around his long conference table.
At first, no one else was showing symptoms, even those who tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I didn’t notice for the first couple days,” says Tyler Smallwood, who handles IT for the office. “It wasn’t until I used some hand sanitizer and it has no smell. I was like, ‘That doesn’t seem right.’”
Most had mild cases, but the oldest — the sales manager — came down with the worst symptoms. Frank Harvey says he left the office on that Thursday afternoon worried about the business and hitting his numbers.
Then, when his temperature spiked and sent him to TriStar Hendersonville Medical Center, he went into survival mode.
“You’ve got all the factors going against you. You’re just a tad bit overweight, and you’re past 60,” he says. “So it’s pretty scary.”
Harvey recovered. So did his colleagues and their households. And now they’re back at it, mostly focused on selling tires but trying to be more diligent about infection control than before.
They’re still not wearing masks, but they have them handy. And a clerical employee was tasked with taking everyone’s temperature in the morning.
‘Eager and optimistic’
As businesses reopen, they’re having to plan for the worst and build in these simple safeguards. But Elizabeth Milito, senior counsel at the National Federation of Independent Business, says the new protocols are time consuming.
“The new reality is setting in, and it’s tiring,” she says.
The NFIB is receiving basic but complicated inquiries: Who should take temperatures? Do you even want to go that far if it’s not required? And how private can you even be at this point about everyone’s personal health?
(As Waldrup points out the employees who tested positive inside Dunlap & Kyle, he says they’ve had to get comfortable with sharing otherwise private health information.)
The business group has been offering guidance to all kinds of companies — from warehouses to nail salons. Milito says everyone she’s working with is eager and optimistic, willing to go through all the trouble to reboot.
“We’re just going to try to make lemonade out of lemons, and get back to work,” she says.
Making its lemons into lemonade, Dunlap & Kyle employees who’ve recovered from the coronavirus are getting time off to donate plasma as often as possible. The plasma is being used around the world to help the sickest COVID-19 patients in hospitals.
Meanwhile, they’ve become more comfortable opening up about the experience. They were nervous when they told customers they were dealing with an outbreak. But their tire shops stuck with them, says salesman Ty Cordray. Somehow, May was the biggest month the company has ever had. And June is on track to be even bigger.
“Since we’ve come back, we’ve been busier than we’ve ever been,” he says. “We think it’s because we were honest and upfront.”