US companies return to ‘normal’ operations as COVID-19 pandemic subsides
US companies return to ‘normal’ operations as COVID-19 pandemic subsides

US companies return to ‘normal’ operations as COVID-19 pandemic subsides

For the first time in two years for many people, the American workplace is transforming into something resembling pre-pandemic days.

Tyson Foods said Tuesday that it stopped the mask requirements for its vaccinated workers in some facilities. Walmart and Amazon – the country’s No. 1 and 2 largest private employers, respectively – will no longer require fully vaccinated workers to wear masks in stores or department stores unless required by local or state laws. Technology companies like Microsoft and Facebook, which had allowed employees to work remotely, are now setting mandatory dates for returning to the office after a series of seizures.

“There has been a sharp drop in COVID-19 cases across the country in recent weeks,” Amazon told workers in a note. “Together with rising vaccination rates across the country, this is a positive sign that we can return to the path of normal operation.”

Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, on Monday announced plans to open its West Coast buildings on Feb. 28 with a hybrid mix of office and home work. Facebook parent Meta Platforms, which had planned to bring workers back to the office on January 31, will now demand that they return – with evidence of a booster shot – on March 28.

It’s a strong turnaround from just a few weeks ago, when the omicron variant of COVID-19 reached its peak, prompting companies to double their mask requirements and enforce daily health examinations while delaying the return to the office’s teleworkers’ plans.

The United States has since seen COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations plummet. Cases have dipped from 455,000 a day two weeks ago to 150,000 on Monday. COVID-19 hospital admissions have fallen 45% from the top a month ago and are now at levels similar to when the country came out of the delta variant increase in September. And nearly 65% ​​of Americans are fully vaccinated.

“I think we’re a much better place than we were six months ago or a year ago,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, a health practice manager at consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. “We are somewhat better protected than we were at any time before. But the new normal will not be the old normal. It will be something different.”

Many office workers will still be required to wear masks in the office and be tested regularly. Front-line employees such as store clerks and restaurant staff who already had to physically go to work will have to adapt to unmasked colleagues and customers – whether they like it or not.

Then there are the old realities of pre-pandemic routines for some: dealing with commuter traffic during rush hour, putting on more dressy clothes again and working with colleagues for the first time in two years.

Megan Chichester, a 48-year-old graphic designer working for a packaging company in De Soto, Kansas, was told she would have to return to the office in April. She has only stopped in the office a few times since the pandemic began.

“I’m excited to see people in person because I’ve missed them,” she said. “But then on the other hand, it’s also a little weird because I’m so used to not being with people that there’s a little bit of anxiety about it.”

Adding to the anxiety is the fact that she has seen return-to-office dates overturned repeatedly over the past few years as cases increased.

“It’s a bit like you’re getting whipped because you do not know what month you’re really returning,” she said.

Several states, including New York and New Jersey, have withdrawn from some of their own restrictions as their case numbers fall, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not yet ready to ask everyone to take off their masks.

Many companies – small and large – are figuring out what is best for them based on the attitudes of their customers and employees.

JPMorgan, which began demanding that workers return to the office in some form in early February, said masking is now voluntary for employees who are fully vaccinated, except for those in cities or localities who still requires it; unvaccinated workers must still wear a mask. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley announced a similar policy in their U.S. offices.

Brian Anderson, marketing manager at a supplement store outside Chicago, said they have been under a state mask mandate since August last year. But as soon as Illinois lifts its mandate on Feb. 28, they will not require customers to wear masks.

“Our customer base is more fitness-focused and definitely not mask wearers,” he said. Store workers can wear a mask, but it is not required.

In contrast, Jeff Moriarty, co-owner of Moriarty’s Gem Art in Indiana, says they will continue to ask customers to wear masks, even though there has been no mandate in his state since 2021. His company supplies masks and rubbing alcohol at 6 p.m. the entrance.

“The reason behind this is because we have older employees working in our store and our owners are over 65,” he said. “We understand that some customers will choose not to wear masks, but we will continue to have it as a recommendation option.”

Companies that have imposed their own vaccination requirements on staff must also navigate the changing dynamics surrounding the virus.

Supreme Court last month overturned a federal nationwide workplace mandate but companies are allowed to maintain their own requirements and many keep them in place. Others, like Starbucks, have decided to remove their mandate in the wake of the district court’s decision.

Peter Naughton, a 46-year-old who works at Walmart in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, said most workers are worried about the mask requirement disappearing. He plans to keep wearing his mask because it protects him and other people.

“It’s not over. It’s still here. It’s going to be here for a while,” Naughton said of the pandemic. “So we have to, you know, take precautions … You never know if there will be another variant, which is very possible.”

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