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These employees can’t work from home, even with coronavirus

Despite the CDC recommending people keep their distance, some employees have to show up to work
In this May 25, 2018, photo, Angel Gonzalez shovels leaves into a trailer at Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg, Maine. Gonzalez is one of several Puerto Rican workers hired by resort to do landscaping, housekeeping and kitchen work. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) MERB203

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The masks at the dental office where Amanda Cook works are carefully rationed and guarded.

Cook, 27, said at Exceptional Dental of St. Petersburg they used to go through six boxes of masks a day. Now they have two boxes to last through the whole week. With supply so low, Cook, an insurance coordinator who works at the front of the office, can’t use one.

But she also can’t work from home. Coordinating with patients can’t be done from afar.

“We’re all really concerned,” Cook said. “We actually have notices on our doors and at the front desk letting anybody know if they feel ill, or flu-like symptoms, to reschedule.”

As coronavirus spreads through the world, a number of offices have encouraged, if not directly told, their employees to work from home. The CDC has encouraged “social distancing,” which means keeping 6 feet away from people. The latest recommendations discourage gatherings of more than 50 people.

But Robert Marshall can’t move furniture unless he’s in his truck, driving around and going into house after house. Marshall, 42, said he keeps Lysol disinfectant wipes in his truck and has been wearing gloves, but can’t stop working.

Marshall, the owner of Affordable Family Moving, doesn’t have a large swath of employees. He relies on his work to pay the bills and help his children and grandchildren.

Right now only him and his nephew work at the business. The two are being more careful about taking cash, worried about what germs could be there.

But what would normally be peak season for him is now unusually slow, and Marshall said he has to keep working.

“I’m absolutely scared,” he said. “It’s like rolling the dice sometimes, I just try to be as safe as I can.”

In St. Petersburg, two-thirds of city employees work out in the field and not in an office, work that cannot be done from home. Initially the city prohibited all employees from working remotely, then reversed it and said employees with concern about being exposed can work from home. But in Clearwater, city employees still have to go to the office.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has given working deputies additional personal protective equipment, including masks, gowns and hand sanitizer. Law enforcement agencies also have access to locations where people who have tested positive or presumptively positive for the virus are staying, Gualtieri said.

“We’re not looking to invade anybody’s privacy,” he said. “What we’re doing is keeping the first responders safe.”

At MaidPro Tampa, the 70 housekeepers have been in high demand as people try to disinfect their homes. Candace Westlake, the franchise owner, said they’re being extra careful by having any employees who are sick stay home. They also now have the women put on hand sanitizer, then gloves, before they enter a house.

“We don't need our staff, you know, picking up anything regardless of whether it's coronavirus or garden variety virus,” Westlake said. “We don't want anyone getting sick.”

Staff also have staggered start times to avoid crowding the office, Westlake said. They use a fresh pair of gloves for every home.

She said the company uses hospital-grade disinfectant, so they’ve been in high demand. But if any of the employees feel sick, or just don’t feel comfortable going from home to home, Westlake said they wouldn’t be forced to. She said some employees who have been with the company for a number of years have paid leave.

“This is a crisis situation,” she said. “Our staff and our customer safety comes first. We wouldn’t be an honorable organization if I held my staff’s feet to the fire.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Kathryn Varn contributed to this report

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