Businesses return to more normal operations as COVID wanes | Health, Medicine and Fitness
By ANNE D’INNOCENZIO – AP Retail Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — For the first time in two years for many people, the American workplace is transforming into something resembling the pre-pandemic days.
Tyson Foods announced Tuesday that it is ending mask requirements for its vaccinated workers at certain facilities. Walmart and Amazon — the nation’s 1st and 2nd largest private employers, respectively — will no longer require fully vaccinated workers to wear masks in stores or warehouses unless required by local or state laws. Tech companies like Microsoft and Facebook, which allowed employees to work entirely remotely, are now setting mandatory dates to return to the office after a series of crises and departures.
“There has been a sharp decline in COVID-19 cases across the country over the past few weeks,” Amazon told workers in a memo. “Along with the increase in vaccination rates across the country, this is a positive sign that we can return to the path of normal operations.
Microsoft, based in Redmond, Wash., announced plans Monday to open its West Coast buildings Feb. 28 with a hybrid mix of office and home working. Facebook’s parent company Meta Platforms, which had planned to bring employees back to the office on January 31, will now ask them to return – with proof of a booster injection – on March 28.
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It’s a stark reversal from just a few weeks ago, when the omicron variant of COVID-19 peaked, prompting companies to double down on mask requirements and enforce daily health screenings while delaying return-to-office plans for remote workers.
The United States has since seen COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations plummet. Cases plunged from 455,000 a day two weeks ago to 150,000 on Monday. COVID-19 hospitalizations have fallen 45% from the peak a month ago and are now at levels similar to those the country emerged from the delta variant surge in September. And nearly 65% of Americans are fully immunized.
“I think we’re in a much better place than we were six months ago or a year ago,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, an executive in the healthcare practice at consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. “We’re a bit more protected than we were at some point in the past. But the new normal won’t be the old normal. It will be somewhat different.”
Many office workers will still need to wear masks in the office and get tested regularly. Frontline workers like store clerks and restaurant staff who were already physically commuting to work will have to adapt to co-workers and customers without masks, whether they want to or not.
Then there are the old realities of pre-pandemic routines for some: coping with rush-hour commuter traffic, putting on dressier clothes and working alongside colleagues for the first time in two years.
Megan Chichester, a 48-year-old graphic designer who works at a packaging company in De Soto, Kansas, has been told she will have to return to the office in April. She’s only stopped by the office a few times since the pandemic began.
“I’m happy to see people in person because I miss them,” she said. “But on the other side, it’s also kind of weird because I’m so used to not being around people that there’s a bit of anxiety about it.”
Adding to the anxiety is the fact that she has seen back-to-office dates scuttled several times over the past two years when cases have spiked.
“It’s kind of like you get a boost because you don’t know what month you’re really coming back to,” she said.
Several states, including New York and New Jersey, have withdrawn from some of their own restrictions as their case numbers drop, but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention isn’t ready to say it all yet. the world to take off their masks.
Many businesses – small and large – determine what works best for them based on the attitudes of their customers and employees.
JPMorgan, which began requiring workers to return to the office in some form in early February, said masking is now voluntary for fully vaccinated employees, except those in cities or towns that require it. still require; unvaccinated workers will still need to wear a mask. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley announced a similar policy in their US offices.
Brian Anderson, director of marketing at a supplement store outside of Chicago, said they’ve been under a state mask mandate since last August. But as soon as Illinois lifts the mandate on February 28, they will no longer require customers to wear masks.
“Our clientele is more fitness oriented and definitely not mask wearers,” he said. Store employees can wear a mask, but it will not be mandatory.
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 hasn’t been a mandate in his state since 2021. His company provides masks and hand sanitizers at the entrance.
“The reason behind this is that we have older associates working in our store and our owners are over 65,” he said. “We understand that some customers will choose not to wear a mask, but we will continue to have it as a referral option.”
Companies that have imposed their own vaccination requirements for staff must also navigate the changing dynamics surrounding the virus.
The Supreme Court last month overturned a national federal workplace mandate but companies are allowed to maintain their own requirements and many maintain them in place. Others, like Starbucks, decided to eliminate their mandate following the High Court ruling.
Peter Naughton, a 46-year-old who works at Walmart in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, said most workers were worried about the disappearance of the mask requirement. He plans to continue wearing his mask as it protects him and others.
“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 another variant is coming, which is very possible.”
AP Writers Tali Arbel, Mae Anderson and Ken Sweet in New York; Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas; Matt O’Brien in Providence, Rhode Island, and Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit contributed to this report.
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