American companies return to 'normal' operations as COVID-19 pandemic wanes
NEW YORK (AP) - For the first time in two years for many people, the American workplace is transforming into something that resembles pre-pandemic days.
Tyson Foods said Tuesday it was ending mask requirements for its vaccinated workers in some facilities. Walmart and Amazon — the nation’s No. 1 and 2 largest private employers respectively — will no longer require fully vaccinated workers to don masks in stores or warehouses unless required under local or state laws. Tech companies like Microsoft and Facebook that had allowed employees to work fully remote are now setting mandatory dates to return to the office after a series of fits and starts.
"There has been a sharp decline in COVID-19 cases across the country over the past weeks," Amazon told workers in a memo. "Along with increasing vaccination rates across the country, this is a positive sign we can return to the path to normal operations."
Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington, on Monday announced plans to open its West Coast buildings on Feb. 28 with a hybrid mix of working in the office and home. Facebook parent Meta Platforms, which had planned to bring workers back to the office on Jan. 31, will now require them to return — with proof of a booster shot — on March 28.
That's a stark reversal from just weeks ago when the omicron variant of COVID-19 was peaking, prompting companies to double-down on mask requirements and enforce daily health screenings while delaying return-to-office plans for remote workers.
The U.S. has since seen COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations plummet. Cases have plunged from 455,000 a day two weeks ago to 150,000 on Monday. COVID-19 hospitalizations have fallen 45% from the peak one month ago and are now at levels similar to when the country was coming out of the delta variant surge in September. And nearly 65% of Americans are fully vaccinated.
"I think we are in a much better place than we were six months ago, or a year ago," said Jeff Levin-Scherz, an executive in the health practice of consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. "We are somewhat better protected than we were at any point in the past. But the new normal isn’t going to be the old normal. It will be somewhat different. "
Many office workers will still be required to wear masks in the office and get regularly tested. Front-line workers like store clerks and restaurant staff who were already physically going to work will have to adjust to maskless colleagues and customers — whether they like it or not.
Then there are the old realities of pre-pandemic routines for some: dealing with rush-hour commuter traffic, putting on dressier clothes again and working alongside co-workers for the first time in two years.
Megan Chichester, a 48-year-old graphic artist who works at a packaging company in De Soto, Kansas, received notice that she will have to return to the office in April. She has only stopped in the office a couple times since the pandemic began.
"I’m excited to see people in person because I have missed them," she said. "But then on the other side, it’s also a little strange because I’m so used to not being around 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 scuttled repeatedly over the past couple years when cases surged.
"It’s kind of like you’re getting whiplash because you don’t know what month you’re really returning," she said.
Several states, including New York and New Jersey, have retreated from some of their own restrictions as their case counts decline but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not yet ready to tell everyone to take off their masks.
Many businesses — small and large — are figuring out what's best for them based on the attitudes of their customers and workers.
JPMorgan, which started requiring workers to return to the office in some form in early February, said that masking is now voluntary for employees who are fully vaccinated, except for those in cities or localities that still require it; unvaccinated workers will still need to 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 of Chicago, said they’ve been under a state mask mandate since last August. But as soon as Illinois lifts the mandate Feb. 28, they won’t 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 won't be required.
By contrast, Jeff Moriarty, co-owner of Moriarty’s Gem Art in Indiana, says they’ll continue to ask customers to wear masks even though there hasn’t been a mandate in his state since 2021. His business provides masks and hand sanitizers at the entrance.
"The reason behind this is because we do have older associates working in our store, and our owners are over the age of 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 for staff also must navigate the changing dynamics surrounding the virus.
The Supreme Court last month knocked down a federal nationwide workplace mandate but companies are allowed to maintain their own requirements and many are keeping them in place. Others, like Starbucks, have decided to eliminate their mandate in the aftermath of the high court ruling.
Peter Naughton, a 46-year-old who works at the Walmart in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, said most workers are worried about the mask requirement going away. 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 need to, you know, take precautions ...You never know if another variant is coming, which is very possible."