Google’s first CEO Eric Schmidt says businesses can safely reopen if they meet 3 conditions

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  • Eric Schmidt is the former CEO and chairman of Google and co-founder of Innovation Endeavors, a VC firm that has invested in Uber and SoFi.
  • Schmidt leads a 15-member New York state pandemic commission that is working to rebuild economic opportunities.
  • Schmidt spoke with Bob Safian, the host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response podcast about how businesses can reopen safely. 
  • He believes frequent antigen testing and “good masks” are the key to keeping people safe in the office. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s first CEO and former chairman, has been busy since leaving the board of Alphabet in June 2019 — and in a way he likely didn’t expect.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tapped Schmidt in May to lead a 15-person commission aimed at rebuilding economic opportunities in the state. His job is to reimagine what New York will look like in the wake of the pandemic. 

On the most recent episode of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response podcast, Schmidt spoke with host Bob Safian about how he believes businesses will be able to reopen as the world contends with the coronavirus. Schmidt says earlier in the show that he seeks out his own information about the pandemic, turning to trusted sources like Johns Hopkins’ website and New York Times coverage. 

“For the majority of working-age people, it should be possible for them to go back to work with some appropriate adjustments,” Schmidt said. 

However, his suggestions aren’t simple ones. It will take supply chain corrections, compliance from employees and landlords, and changes to testing systems across the country. 

1. Wear good masks: surgical, N95, or KN95 

One of the first steps for returning to work is ensuring that workers wear good masks — Schmidt defines these as surgical, N95, or KN95 masks. Those specific masks fit tighter and can filter airborne particles that can carry the virus. “Not one of these cloth things that look pretty,” he said. “Take the thing seriously.” 

However, as of July, the country was still facing a shortage of N95 KN95 masks. Schmidt didn’t elaborate on how to solve that problem, but insisted that wearing good masks was the first step in safely returning to work. 

2. Office separation and effective ventilation 

Employees who wear masks should still practice social distancing, Schmidt said. What’s more, offices need to be up-to-date on air flow and filtration systems. Pay close attention to MERVs or Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values, which measures a filter’s ability to contain particles depending on their size. The higher the MERV the better the filter.

“Landlords should be upgrading their air-handling systems,” Schmidt said. “Similarly, if you increase the number of air changes per hour, you can also improve ventilation.” 

3. Frequent testing 

Schmidt believes the key to keeping people in the office safe is regular testing. “If we had broadly-available, easily accessible antigen testing today…and you did them weekly, you could probably operate a skyscraper reasonably safely,” he said. Antigen tests hunt for active Covid-19 infections and results are generally available in a short amount of time. 

However, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. In August, manufacturers of antigen tests told Politico they were nowhere near able to meet demand. Schmidt said In the next one to two months, there are five or 10 antigen-based emergency authorizations “coming through the pipeline,” in the US. He added that these tests are already available in South Korea and China but didn’t elaborate on what this would cost employers. 

“I think that most businesses would find that the cost of weekly testing would be relatively minor compared to the loss of productivity they’re seeing,” he said. “Until we have this under control, we’re going to have to operate under these restrictions.”

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