Four employees of WLS-Channel 7 were kept away from work Tuesday out of concern they may have been exposed to the coronavirus, officials of the ABC-owned station confirmed.
The action was taken “out of an abundance of caution,” the station said, after an ABC 7 reporter and photographer interviewed a food service worker Monday at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights where a coronavirus patient was being treated.
A second photographer who shook hands with the first one (during a shift change in the news van) was told not to come to work. The wife of the first photographer, who also is employed at the station, was offered the opportunity to stay home with their family and chose to do so.
All four employees were awaiting the results of COVID-19 tests on the food service worker before they are expected to come back. ABC 7 would not confirm the names of the four, citing confidentiality.
John Idler, president and general manager of ABC 7, said in a statement: “As a preventative measure, we’ve asked three employees to stay home after interviewing a hospital worker from a facility that is treating a patient who tested positive.” (He did not refer to the fourth employee, who stayed home for family reasons.)
Idler declined further comment, and ABC 7 did not plan to report the incident on its newscasts or website.
Unions representing technicians and on-air employees expressed concern about how local stations are responding to the spread of the virus and questioning whether appropriate policies are in place.
"We take the safety and environmental health concerns of our members especially seriously," Raza Siddiqui, vice president of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians — Communications Workers of America Local 41, wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday.
“In light of the spread of coronavirus, we are working to find ways to ensure the safety of our members while continuing our responsibilities in educating the public," he wrote.
“When appropriate, crews should turn down assignments where they feel unsafe or exposed to hazardous situations or undue risk. If there is an option to interview an infected or possibly infected individual this should be done via phone. It adds nothing to the story to send a news crew unprotected to try to get the interview and puts them and the broader community at undue risk.”
In a related matter, employees of Chicago's Cumulus Media radio stations — including news/talk WLS 890-AM — received an official coronavirus plan from the company Tuesday. It strongly encourages employees to follow the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including recommendations to stay home when you are sick and wash your hands often.
"We want to assure you that we are prepared with a plan should we face a direct impact," wrote Todd McCarty, chief human resources officer at Cumulus Media. "Without a doubt, your safety is our top priority, and we are also working diligently to make sure we have a plan in place to serve the local communities who rely on us for trusted information."