Here’s How Companies Are Responding to the Rise in Virus Cases

Large businesses are revising their rules about employee vaccinations and wearing masks as the Delta variant drives up infections.

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For many companies, September was supposed to mark a triumphant return to dormant offices, a time to crank up productivity and reboot in-person corporate cultures that have withered during 18 months of Zoom calls.

Now those return-to-office plans, like so many others during this long, tortuous pandemic, are changing yet again.

With the Delta variant of the coronavirus surging and infections rising across the country, even among some vaccinated people, Lyft said this week that it was pushing back its September return-to-office date to February. Google is extending its work-from-home policy to mid-October, and Apple said employees would not be expected to return to the office until at least Oct. 1, a month later than before. And on Thursday, Uber said that it would not require employees to return until Oct. 25, instead of its initial September date, and that a further delay was possible if cases kept rising.

Just when it looked like the end was near, it is starting to feel like back to the pandemic future.

“Rising Covid cases in our communities are a real reminder that we still need to be cautious, look at the data and listen to experts as we return to offices,” Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, wrote in an email to staff.

While many companies have been planning to allow their employees to continue to work from home in some capacity, they have also insisted that workers return to the office for at least a few days a week.

Some leaders have been vocal about that desire, particularly in industries, like finance, that value in-person communication. At JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, fully vaccinated employees in U.S. offices have been able to go without a mask since May, in line with guidance at the time from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Neither bank had a comment about a potential change now that the C.D.C. is encouraging all people to wear masks indoors in parts of the country where virus cases are rising. Citigroup told its employees this week that they must put their masks back on in public spaces in the office.

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Citigroup told employees that they must wear masks in public spaces in the office.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

In reality, the post-Labor Day dates for returns to offices were an “artificial line in the sand,” said Kate Lister, president of the consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, who has been advising employers on their office planning.

Companies have been eager to start making the transition back to offices that they have paid to occupy, but also needed time to corral employees who had scattered during the pandemic.

Still, until recently, many employers were in denial about the rising infection rates. “A lot of people were putting the blinders on because it was on the calendar,” Ms. Lister said.

And some executives thought they had gotten past the most challenging stage of the pandemic and could return their focus to the jobs they had signed up for.

“For most C.E.O.s, they just want to get on with business.” said Mary Kay O’Neill, a partner at Mercer, a human resources consulting firm. “They want to get on with thinking about the things they used to always think about and not think about this thing which is not in their sweet spot usually.”

Among their top concerns is “work force stability,” Ms. O’Neill said, noting the huge employee turnover underway in the country.

The shifting return dates are upending employees’ plans, too. “It seemed like everything was going fine,” said Jerry Luo, 29, a data scientist at a large tech company. He signed a lease on a home in Silicon Valley, expecting to move from San Diego ahead of his company’s plans to fully reopen its office in September, but the company then pushed those plans further into the fall.

“I figured it’s going to be September — might as well get a lease because rents will go up fast,” Mr. Luo said on Thursday. “Last week, I signed the lease. Yesterday, the news came out.”

Perhaps more than anything, the delays are a disheartening reminder that the pandemic is far from over.

Months ago, when many companies set September return dates, the timing seemed conservative and safe, giving time for vaccinations to take effect. Children would be back in classes full time, and remote school would be a relic of a darker time when indoor spaces like classrooms and offices were deemed too risky to occupy.

“You’ve got parents now who are thinking that maybe their children won’t go to school in the fall,” Ms. Lister said.

For workers who do not have the luxury of working from home, the Delta variant is also bringing fresh risks and a sinking sense of that they have been here before.

The C.D.C. is recommending that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in certain parts of the country, but many major companies, states and cities have not adjusted their mask policies. That leaves workers in a familiar, hazardous spot: While top health officials are recommending certain precautions, the policymakers are not requiring them, leading to confusion and inconsistency.

“People are afraid at work again,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

A few companies are reinstating mask mandates. Apple announced on Wednesday that it would start requiring employees and customers to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status in more than half of its stores.

The Landscape of the Post-Pandemic Return to Office

Delta-variant delays. A wave of the contagious Delta variant is causing companies to reconsider when they will require employees to return, and what health requirements should be in place when they do.A generation gap. While workers of all ages have become accustomed to dialing in and skipping the wearying commute, younger ones have grown especially attached to the new way of doing business. This is causing some difficult conversations between managers and newer hires.How to keep offices safe. Handwashing is a simple way to reduce the spread of disease, but employers should be thinking about improved ventilation systems, creative scheduling and making sure their building is ready after months of low use.Return-to-work anxiety. Remote work brought many challenges, particularly for women of color. But going back will also mean a return to microaggressions, pressure to conform to white standards of professionalism, and high rates of stress and burnout.

But other big retailers are staying quiet on whether they plan to start requiring that all customers, including the fully vaccinated, wear masks again.

A spokeswoman for Publix, which has more than 1,000 grocery stores across Florida and the rest of the South, said it was “reviewing the updated C.D.C. guidance at this time and will provide updates regarding our policies as appropriate.”

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A Publix grocery store in Miami Beach, Fla. The company does not require that customers wear masks.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Starbucks and Chipotle still allow customers to enter their locations without wearing a mask, except where required by local regulations or law, according to their websites. Officials for Macy’s, Target, Walmart and Kohl’s did not have any immediate comment.

The current C.D.C. recommendations, which are up to local governments to enforce, effectively vary by county. That means a retailer could have two stores in the same general area operating with two different approaches to masks. And the rules are geared toward the most vulnerable counties with low vaccination rates, where people may also resist mask policies.

“The safest course of action to be able to have something to refer to is to simply say, ‘We plan to adhere to C.D.C. guidelines,'” said Joel Bines, who leads the retail operations at the consulting firm AlixPartners. But he said many companies he was speaking to were not prepared to reverse course on masks.

“You have a set of retailers who have evaluated the data and the information and are coming to the conclusion that they’ve already made the change that they’re going to make and they’re not planning on going back,” Mr. Bines said.

Mr. Appelbaum said the federal government needed to issue a national mask mandate for retail customers because “the companies are not going to do it on their own.”

“They only did it reluctantly before,” he added.

For retailers that were forced to close for at least part of 2020, there might be little motivation to potentially alienate needed customers over masks.

“They want the business, especially after the year we just had,” said Luisa Borrell, professor at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy. “They say the customer is always right, but if there’s not a national mandate, it’s going to be hard for them to enforce that.”

At Giacomo Fine Food, a deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, fully vaccinated customers may still go mask-free, said Omar Bravo, a store employee. It will again require masks for all customers if the New York State Department of Health instructs it to.

As for the new C.D.C. guidelines? Mr. Bravo had not heard about them yet. “It’s hard to keep up,” he said.

Kate Conger contributed reporting.

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