A CEO of a large-scale Janesville employer said Tuesday his company has been bracing for weeks for the COVID-19 pandemic to force employees to work at home.

During an hourlong conference call with 90 local business leaders, Janesville-based Data Dimensions CEO Jon Boumstein said his company is preparing for a worst-case scenario as concerns and government responses mount over the pandemic.

“We think this is going to get worse before it gets better,” Boumstein said. “Our personal opinion is we think we’re heading toward more of a full shutdown.”

Data Dimensions electronically processes large volumes of health care documents and other records. The company has developed a work-from-home strategy that might allow employees to continue their work if the COVID-19 crisis forces commerce to grind to a halt.

It wasn’t clear Tuesday if Boumstein was referring to the likelihood of a full government shutdown of businesses or a more limited or self-imposed shutdown by individual companies. He did not immediately respond to Gazette requests for clarification.

Boumstein spoke during a conference call that chamber of commerce Forward Janesville made available to members at noon Tuesday.

The chamber started making plans for the call Monday, and it rolled out as Gov. Tony Evers declared a statewide ban on public gatherings that could apply to many businesses.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the governor’s edict meant “nonessential” retail stores and other gathering places had to curb crowds of more than 10 people, and restaurants and taverns must shut down except for takeout and delivery.

During the call, Forward Janesville officials urged small businesses to reach out to the chamber with their concerns, including questions about emergency financing.

Boumstein and a Blain’s Farm & Fleet human resources official offered insight into measures they’ve implemented in their corporate offices and at retail stores to stem a spread of COVID-19.

Boumstein said Data Dimensions has begun sending many of its 1,000 office workers home with equipment they need to continue working. Its human resources department has been tapped as the official liaison on the company’s internal COVID-19 response for workers in Janesville and several other states.

Although some people now work from home, Boumstein said the flow of records his employees process has not slowed.

Ongoing work obligations are the dilemma for businesses large and small, which now face the reality that many workers might have to be sent home either to protect their health or avert the potential spread of a contagious disease.

“Day by day, we’re trying to understand. Do we stay open or do we not? We’re trying to comprehend,” Forward Janesville member Oakleigh Ryan said during the conference call, which the Gazette obtained a recording of Tuesday.

There are no immediate answers as to how businesses should handle a pandemic that might impact the livelihoods of thousands of people.

For now, Boumstein and Dennis Armstrong, Blain’s Farm & Fleet’s chief human resources officer, offered some examples of policies and procedures their companies have put in place.

Data Dimensions has:

  • Organized work-from-home plans for as many employees as possible.
  • Restricted its offices to employees and vendors only.
  • Asked employees to meet using teleconferencing equipment, to clean their work spaces with disinfectant three times per shift, and to keep a six-foot cushion of space between each other at work.
  • Temporarily banned office potlucks, meals delivered to the office, and eating or snacking at employee workspaces.
  • Required anyone who has traveled out of state or has cold or flu-like symptoms such as a fever or cough to stay home. Anyone with a fever is required to stay home for 14 days after the fever is gone.

Armstrong said Farm & Fleet considers it stores as “essential” retailers because the stores sell food for humans and animals. As of Tuesday afternoon, Farm & Fleet had decided to keep its retail locations open.

Farm & Fleet has taken these steps:

  • Increased disinfecting of frequently used surfaces, such as checkout conveyors, metal counter and shelf surfaces.
  • Limiting meetings of more than 10 people in stores and at corporate offices and staggering breaks to avoid employees “clustering” in break areas.
  • Allowing anyone in its corporate offices who must care for children who are home from school to work from home.

Elsewhere in Janesville, Gazette reporters observed businesses grappling with the government and public’s response to COVID-19.

Kwik Trip shut down its self-serve coffee kiosks at its gas station convenience stores. A manager at the Milton Avenue Kwik Trip said he was assigning staff to man the coffee kiosk.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Sam’s Club on Deerfield Drive appeared to have run out of milk and eggs.

A Sam’s Club clerk told a customer inquiring about milk: “It would be in this aisle, but we’re out.”

Chevrolet dealer Bob Clapper Automotive announced it planned to keep its service department open but urged customers waiting for repairs or service to keep a safe distance from one another.

The dealership said it planned to place new steering wheel covers on all vehicles being serviced as a health precaution for customers.

Local funeral homes said they’ve taken measures to limit crowds for visitations or services. One funeral home was working to cycle in small groups during visitations, and others have begun holding private services.

Julie Cubbage, the manager of the Janesville Mall, confirmed that the mall was closed as of Tuesday night. No further details were available at press time.

Also Tuesday night, eateries and bars downtown and along West Court Street and Milton Avenue already were operating under the state edict to close their dining rooms. But fast food drive-thrus on those streets were humming with customers waiting for drive-up orders, their parking lots lit up by headlights of cars that wrapped around the buildings.

The Frostie Freeze, an ice cream stand on West Court Street, was thrumming with drive-thru customers. People in jackets sat in the chilly air after 8 p.m., eating ice cream cones at picnic tables next to the stand.

Downtown was eerily quiet after 6 p.m. Tuesday night. Riley’s Sports Bar & Grill, one of a few downtown taverns that had planned as of Monday afternoon to try to forge ahead with curbside pickup of St. Patrick’s Day meal specials, sat in suspended animation, its windows dark and its door locked.

Across the street, another bar had its lights on, but the street was empty except for one car.

Riley’s had a paper sign on the window that read: “Closed until further notice per COVID-19.”