For a while there, it seemed like things were finally heading back to normal. Now, not so much.
In the span of just a week, plans for a September return to the office have been pushed back. Mask mandates have made a comeback. And a growing number of employers, including the federal government, are laying down the line on vaccines.
On Friday, Walmart — the country's largest private employer — reversed its policy and will once again require all workers to wear masks in areas most affected by the delta variant of the coronavirus. Grocery chains Kroger and Publix are following suit. The New York Times indefinitely postponed its planned return to the office.
The delta variant is much more transmissible, and health officials are concerned it may also make people sicker and can even be spread by fully vaccinated individuals. That means, almost a year and a half into the pandemic, companies are facing a difficult task of yet again recalibrating what steps are necessary to keep workers safe.
"This is a Rubik's Cube with a thousand colors on each side," said David Lewis, CEO of OperationsInc, a human resources consulting practice. "There just continue to be a lot more questions than answers."
The CDC's reversal on masks was a tipping point
First came the reversal from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Tuesday, in response to the delta variant, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said fully vaccinated Americans should once again wear masks indoors in places where the coronavirus is surging, citing new research that showed vaccinated people can spread the virus to others.
The automotive world was ready to act. Ford said it was once again mandating masks at its facilities in Missouri and Florida, effective Wednesday. It has since added Kentucky. Earlier, General Motors was reported as reinstating mask requirements at its plant in Wentzville, Mo.
The response from Big Tech was swift as well. On Wednesday, Twitter said it was closing offices in New York and San Francisco that had just recently reopened. Google announced it was delaying its return-to-office date for most employees from September to mid-October. Google and Facebook also said they would now require employees to be vaccinated before coming into the office, a requirement Twitter already had in place.
Then on Thursday, calling deaths among the unvaccinated "an American tragedy," President Biden ordered federal civilian employees and contractors to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing. The Pentagon later said members of the military would be subject to the same rules.
Many companies are still figuring it out
Most major companies are taking a few days' pause to figure out how to adapt to the CDC's new call for universal indoor masking in some parts of the country.
"As a country, vaccination options have been available for months, but, unfortunately, because so many people have chosen not to receive it, we've left ourselves more vulnerable to variants," Walmart executives wrote in Friday's memo to U.S. staff.
Decisions are particularly tricky for companies whose workers were never able to work remotely. Grocers and supermarkets, for example, were quick to drop mask requirements for shoppers when the CDC eased its guidance in May. Workers there had been harassed, attacked and even killed as they were forced to become enforcers of masking mandates.
Walmart and its Sam's Club arm, for now, are "strongly encouraging" but not requiring shoppers to wear masks in stores. The company is among others, such as Target and Dollar General, that have been paying workers bonuses for vaccinating. On Friday, Walmart said it's doubling the bonus to $150.
Kroger said it would reinstate mask requirements for workers in areas most affected by the delta variant. Florida-based Publix said all staff will have to wear masks at all store locations starting Monday.
NPR has reached out to almost two dozen major retail, hotel, food and pharmacy chains. Many, like Costco, say they continue watching for regulations to come from local and state authorities.
"We do work very closely and monitor the local situation and we adapt accordingly. So if it means that we have to wear masks again, even if vaccinated, that's what we'll do," Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky told reporters Thursday.
Olsavsky added that Amazon is "still aiming for a return to office in September," working to provide more vaccines to its employees but not requiring them.
Expect a range of responses from employers
Lewis, the HR consultant, is advising clients against rushing into decisions to postpone return-to-work plans, given the uncertainties around how the long this latest COVID-19 surge will last. But he said those who can wait to go back should consider waiting, and regardless, communication is key.
"Tell your employees what you're thinking and at least give them a sense that you're paying attention," Lewis said.
As with every stage of the pandemic, what employers ultimately decide to do will vary greatly by industry and by region.
One size does not fit all, Lewis said, and no decision is simple. Companies that do choose to reinstate masks, for example, run the risk of stirring up greater levels of resistance among employees who may already have concerns about coming back to the office.
This week, as the number of new coronavirus cases continued to soar, a sense of exasperation could be felt all across the country.
"It is truly unfortunate that mask recommendations have returned," the National Retail Federation said on Tuesday, "when the surest known way to reduce the threat of the virus is widespread vaccination."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
For a while, it seemed like things were getting somewhat back to a pre-pandemic normal. Then came the delta variant. So some companies that had been planning a big return to the office in the fall are now rethinking those plans, and more and more are laying down the line on vaccines. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: With the latest surge in COVID, how do you keep your workforce safe? Well, the nation's largest employer is trying something big.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Every federal government employee will be asked to attest to their vaccination status.
HSU: That's President Biden speaking yesterday. He laid out a choice for some 4 million federal workers and contractors - get vaccinated or submit to regular testing once or twice a week. Also, wear a mask and social distance.
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BIDEN: We all want our lives to get back to normal. And fully vaccinated workplaces will - will make that happen more quickly and more successfully.
HSU: The federal government is by far the biggest employer to do this. And Biden has staked his presidency on ending the pandemic. But companies all over the U.S. are trying to figure out how best to respond to this latest COVID surge when even vaccinated people may be at risk.
DAVID LEWIS: I mean, this is a Rubik's Cube with a thousand colors on each side.
HSU: David Lewis is CEO of the human resources consulting practice OperationsInc. He's been fielding calls from clients asking, should we require vaccines? Should we bring back masks? Those are not simple questions, he says. Take masks - earlier this week, the CDC reversed course and urged everyone, even fully vaccinated people, to wear masks indoors again in places where the virus is surging. But without a state or local mandate, Lewis says a company requiring masks in the workplace can be tricky business.
LEWIS: It does potentially engender a greater level of fear than perhaps is warranted in those circumstances. It does engender a greater level of resistance on the part of your employees to then want to come into the office as a whole.
HSU: Of course, this depends a lot on what kind of business you are and where you are. Walmart said today all store employees in COVID hot spots would once again have to wear masks. Ford this week reinstated masks at its plants in Missouri, Florida and Kentucky. For the most part, David Lewis is urging his clients not to rush into big decisions. He says, look, we don't know exactly how long this surge is going to last. But he is evolving on one topic, and that is when to bring remote workers back to the office.
LEWIS: We were advising clients to look at that Tuesday or Wednesday after Labor Day.
HSU: Now, though, he's leaning toward if you can wait, wait.
LEWIS: If you can maintain the remote work relationship you've had up until this point, time should heal a lot of these challenges.
HSU: And some are waiting. This week, Google said it's delayed its planned return from September to mid-October. The New York Times said today it's putting off its return indefinitely. Amazon, for now, is sticking with its original plan. Here's Amazon chief financial officer Brian Olsavsky yesterday.
BRIAN OLSAVSKY: Right now, our plans remain the same. We're still aiming for a return to office in September. We are focusing our efforts on getting more vaccines for our employees and helping them get vaccinated.
HSU: Amazon is not requiring vaccines at this time, though. Google, Facebook and Twitter are for people who will be going into the office. And then a lot of other employers are still taking some time to figure things out. Goldman Sachs, which brought workers back in June, said no changes for now, but they're watching things closely; ditto for Morgan Stanley. Marriott told me its mask policy is under discussion. These companies and others did say they will comply with any state or local regulations. And at least when it comes to mask mandates, more are definitely coming.
Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.