State firms gird for bird flu

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PORTLAND (AP) – Some Maine businesses were making plans for coping with a bird flu pandemic even before the Bush administration announced that local governments and business leaders shouldn’t count on the federal government alone to rescue them.

Among the possibilities: restaurant workers could wear masks and serve customers outside; supermarkets could gear up for Internet shopping and home delivery; and workers showing signs of illness could be turned away by nurses hired by employers.

The government is making worst-case predictions that a flu pandemic could keep 40 percent of workers off the job, either because they are sick or need to care for their families.

The government also is encouraging businesses to develop plans that minimize contact among employees, such as working at home, teleconferences and liberal sick-leave policies.

Even though no pandemic is imminent, some Maine businesses have initiated planning.

The Maine Restaurant Association is passing the word to its 800 members about the overall goal of serving customers with minimal contact. That could mean more take-out and drive-through service, with orders being faxed in or sent via e-mail. Wait staff in sit-down restaurants might need to wear face masks, said Richard Grotton, the restaurant association’s president.

For Hannaford Bros., which has 50 supermarkets and 10,000 employees in Maine, a 12-member team began putting a plan together a few months ago.

The company won’t discuss details yet, according to Caren Epstein, a Hannaford spokeswoman. But supermarkets have been advised to prepare for panic buying, a spike in Internet shopping, and for some frightened workers to stay home.

Michael O’Connor, vice president and risk contingency manager at TD Banknorth, said an internal committee is considering a range of options, including nurses to screen sick workers. A formal plan is expected in the next two months.

Online banking and automated teller machines have made retail banking less dependent on face-to-face contact with customers, but TD Banknorth has hundreds of workers who sit close together in operations in Portland, Lewiston and Falmouth, he said.

Hospitals also have been working their plans.

Maine Medical Center and Mercy Hospital in Portland plan to use clerical workers, retired nurses and doctors, and even medical school students to assist, said Maggie Kelley, director of employee health services at Maine Med.

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