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Building a bridge to normalcy, some companies follow the universities’ example and test employees regularly

The Boston Ballet, whose members performed on the street in early November, had 12 weeks of COVID-free rehearsals in 2020, thanks to regular testing.
The Boston Ballet, whose members performed on the street in early November, had 12 weeks of COVID-free rehearsals in 2020, thanks to regular testing.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Relay Therapeutics, a Cambridge life-sciences company, and the Boston Ballet couldn’t be any more different, except for this: Both aim to get employees back into the workplace safely.

They have taken a page from the universities’ playbook by testing employees weekly to build a bridge to normalcy. It isn’t cheap, but in-person interaction is critical to growing their businesses and their bottom lines.

“If we had to choreograph a whole season of solos, that didn’t seem appealing,” explained Ryan Fotter, Boston Ballet’s chief of staff, on why the organization expects to spend over $100,000 on testing during the 2020-21 season to bring about 80 dancers, rehearsal directors, and other staff into the studio to create new performances.

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The ballet converted a conference room at its Boston headquarters into a testing space, while Relay turned a coatroom into a place where employees can do their own COVID test swabbing.

Since the fall, all 130 Relay employees have been back to the office at least once, and more than half come in several times a week as part of a regular rotation. Andy Porter, Relay’s chief people experience officer, said that even with vaccines on the way, testing may become the new normal for the drug maker. “Testing will be part of the regimen for the foreseeable future,” he said.

It’s ever more clear that vaccines alone won’t offer a return to normal, and that regular testing, along with masks and social distancing, are likely to become a way of life for some time. Even when herd immunity is reached in the United States, possibly this year, no one yet knows how long the vaccines will offer immunity and whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus.

Unlike his predecessor, President Biden is trumpeting testing, but his focus has been on expanding screening in K-8 schools so more can reopen for in-person learning. That still leaves the private sector on its own, and many businesses have chosen to forgo testing because the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t pencil out. That calculus, however, is shifting rapidly as test prices drop and the options grow for helping employers set up testing programs apart from the traditional health care infrastructure.

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Meanwhile, a new crop of antigen tests — faster and less expensive than the molecular tests, which must be processed in labs — could be another tool to bring employees back to work safely.

For consumer-facing businesses, routine worker testing can instill confidence that where you shop, eat, or stay is COVID-free.

That’s what Unite Here Local 26′s president, Carlos Aramayo, has been pushing Boston hotels to do, but so far they have balked, telling him it’s too expensive.

“Tourism and travel and the events industry are not going to come back until the public feels comfortable and confident they won’t get sick,” said Aramayo, whose union represents hospitality and food workers.

Aramayo needs only to look to higher education to see how its investment in testing has been good for the economy.

With campuses able to bring back students, that meant most of Unite Here’s college cafeteria workers — about 1,400 in the Boston area — were able to keep their jobs throughout the pandemic, while nearly all of the roughly 10,000 members who work in casinos, hotels, and other food-service businesses have been laid off or furloughed.

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“Similar to how universities and higher institutions have faced an existential threat, I think the hospitality industry is also facing an existential threat, because people don’t want to travel,” Aramayo said. “You are going to need a robust vaccine and testing program. The faster you can achieve that, the faster we can have the seafood show.”

Other companies miss the serendipity of in-person collaboration, and weekly testing allows for a safer return to the office.

“That spontaneous building of ideas is very difficult to recreate in a virtual setting,” said Michael Sierra, vice president of LEO Science & Tech Hub, who has been in the office five days a week since September.

Sierra works in the Cambridge Innovation Center, a shared workspace in Kendall Square that offers tenants free testing up to two times a week through its subsidiary CIC Health.

Sierra said five members, or roughly half the staff, go into the office regularly. Sierra has found that testing offers a peace of mind that is good for business.

“You start worrying about other things, your focus changes,” said Sierra who works with scientists on innovations. “Creating that security and safety allows people to focus back on work.”

Gabor Bethlendy, the founder of Meenta, a Boston scientific instruments and clinical testing marketplace, said schools and athletic teams have been its primary customers, less so private employers, but he believes that will change as more tests that can provide results in minutes become available.

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Employers are also starting to use testing for specific assignments. Meenta, for example, recently developed a protocol for a New York law firm that needed to create a bubble-like environment for a weeklong trial that brought together a dozen East Coast lawyers. They took molecular tests before and after the trial and throughout the week received rapid tests administered by a nurse. No one got sick.

Bethlendy expects that demand for testing to grow, because the coronavirus continues to mutate. “The uncertainty is where the risk is,” he said.

Being in the life-sciences space helped Relay Therapeutics quickly figure out how to set up testing for its employees. Similarly, Thermo Fisher Scientific, the Waltham maker of lab equipment, was able to offer COVID-19 screening early in the pandemic and has tested about 20,000 US employees with the help of two partners, EverlyWell and LabCorp.

For Boston Ballet, however, it was a different story.

“I didn’t even know where to begin when I began,” recalled Fotter, the ballet’s chief of staff, whose research included reaching out to the Boston Celtics during the summer for advice because their players work under similarly close-contact conditions as dancers.

Ultimately the ballet hired CIC Health to handle COVID-19 screening, which started in October and allowed the organization to monitor whether its rigorous safety protocols were working. The ballet had 12 weeks of COVID-free rehearsals in 2020.

“We will definitely keep testing as long as it keeps people safe,” Fotter said.

Imagine how much of the economy could have reopened — and stayed open — if routine testing had taken root beyond screening people with symptoms or those who have been exposed. 2021 can be the year when more testing and fewer restrictions drive a recovery.

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Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.