First the Water Cooler, Now the Breakroom

Published 10/21/2020
Is the Break Room Gone?
One of the great things about almost any job is the people you meet. People who you otherwise would never know and, more importantly, never connect with. The workplace certainly isn't the great equalizer, but it can act as a social mixing pot. However, with work-from-home being implemented more and more, and workplace redesign intended to purposely keep us apart becoming the norm, getting to know our fellow employees is becoming harder and harder. Just when we think it can't get worst, now it looks like we're going to (at least now), lose our coffee breaks too.
Although we think that the mandatory workplace break is a recent invention, it actually dates back more than a century with the "tea break". During World War I, a "tea break" was made mandatory in English munitions factories following a series of studies on "Industrial Fatigue as a result of the monotony of the work as well as muscular and mental fatigue.
Interestingly, the "coffee break" (allegedly) originated in the late 19th century in Stoughton, Wisconsin with the wives of Norwegian immigrants. The popularity of the coffee break was actually promoted by a behavioral psychologist, John B. Watson, who worked for (get ready for it), Maxwell House.
Now, however, it's possible that our cherished coffee break and it's subsequent social interactions could another victim of the Covid-19 pandemic. Small break rooms with little social distancing and mask-wearing are being found to be a major concern for coronavirus transmission, as reported by Rachel Nunes in the Oct. 15, 2020 Cranston Patch.
As reported by Ms. Nunes...
"As Rhode Island grapples with a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, state leaders are taking steps to help slow the spread of the virus in more casual settings, including offices. Starting Thursday, break rooms must be closed for the next 90 days, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced.
"I'm asking you to find alternative, safe ways for employees to take a break," the governor said to Rhode Island business owners. More information is available on the Reopening RI website.
The Rhode Island Department of Health said small, casual gatherings are the most likely culprit for the latest increase, which includes in communal areas such as break rooms. When people, even a few at a time, gather to chat, eat lunch or maker a cup of coffee without social distancing or mask-wearing, virus transmission can easily occur, especially if there are no windows to allow for airflow.
The governor said the closure "is not meant to be punitive," and that alternatives are available for facilities that cannot close their break rooms for contract or union reasons, such as creating a sign-up sheet to avoid crowding.
While break rooms are closed, it's important for employers to find alternative ways for employees to step away and take a break, Raimondo said, such as creating an outdoor space or tent or encouraging employees to take a walk.
Along with closing break rooms, the governor reiterated the importance of wearing a mask at all times when in the office, even with close coworkers."
In Governor Raimondo's press conference last Thursday, she said that businesses should "“Encourage employees to go outside,” said Raimondo, and suggested outdoor tents or setting up a larger room for breaks where windows can be opened.
If it’s impossible for an employer to close a break room, Raimondo suggested only allowing one person in at a time, increasing ventilation by opening windows, removing tables and chairs and if possible, have designated “enter” and “exit” doors to control the traffic flow of people."
As reported in the Providence Business News (PBN), "New restrictions surrounding break rooms will be announced on - the new restrictions will not include cafeterias.
As also reported in the PBN "She (the Governor) suggested close contact workers, those age 18-39, those traveling to another state that requires a test or returning from a state a 5% positive rate or higher, or recently attended a large protest or demonstration to get tested for COVID-19. Appointments for free tests can be made here.
“We don’t want anymore stay-at-home orders,” Raimondo said.
In a sounding-of-the-alarm, the governor made it clear that Rhode Island’s COVID-19 data is creeping up in cases as small, intimate congregations are causing further spread.
“The numbers are creeping up. That means we need to do something more,” said R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott. “Let’s make Rhode Island the state that is leading the way of changing the trajectory.”
“Mask wearing should now be the default.”
Alexander-Scott recommended employers to post signs around the workplace about vigilant hand washing, mask wearing and keeping six feet apart for social distancing purposes.