For the past six months, Massachusetts residents have been emerging from their pandemic shells, eating inside restaurants, going to concerts and sporting events, sweating at the gym again, and being around more people in close quarters of all kinds.
Some venues require face masks or proof of vaccination, but for the most part, in-person activities are relatively unrestrained compared with last year, even with a recent increase in virus cases as the weather cools and people move indoors.
Amid all this interpersonal activity, however, many offices remain empty.
Businesses have said they are monitoring COVID-19 metrics to decide when to bring their employees back, a mindset that led to a string of reopening delays in September due to the Delta variant. But health experts say there’s nothing particularly risky about working in an office anymore, challenging the long-held belief by some that the coronavirus alone is a reason to continue to work from home.
“Implying that there is something different or more dangerous about offices is totally not true,” said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.
Health care workers, first responders, retail employees, and many others never stopped working in person. Students and faculty, from elementary schools to colleges, are back in person, too. And it’s been nearly six months since state officials deemed that the pandemic warranted occupancy limits and social distancing for businesses.
Doron acknowledged the recent uptick in coronavirus cases in Massachusetts, but said it’s a good sign that deaths and hospitalizations are not on the same trajectory. To her, the state has moved into a “post-vaccination phase,” where cases should be expected and not something that prohibits activities such as going to an office.
“I think this is what our new world is,” Doron said. “If you are not willing to come into the office now, then one has to ask oneself, what would need to happen, and is that ever going to happen, for you to be comfortable?”
Dr. Andy Pekosz, a virologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said determining whether an office is safe “starts and almost ends with vaccination,” since it’s the best way to reduce risk. Of the more than 4.8 million vaccinated individuals in Massachusetts, just over one percent experienced a breakthrough COVID-19 case, according to the latest data from the Department of Public Health.
Pekosz believes masks are still a good idea in group settings, and while people can’t wear masks while eating in cafeterias or break rooms, that “shouldn’t prevent us from going to the workplace.”
It’s no surprise that Joseph Allen of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health thinks people can be back in offices. In his book “Healthy Buildings,” he essentially wrote the manual for keeping people safe indoors. A building with a mostly vaccinated workforce and ventilation system that routinely refreshes the air is a low-risk environment, according to Allen.
Martin Bazant, a professor at MIT, said office buildings are one of the safest places for people to be, so avoiding them for health reasons doesn’t make sense.
“Modern offices are likely safe to occupy fully right now, in many cases, without masks,” said Bazant, who teaches chemical engineering and mathematics.
His assessment is based on an online tool he helped create last year that uses models to calculate probabilities of COVID-19 transmission in indoor spaces. It allows users to input various factors such as local prevalence of the virus and type of ventilation system.
“Given current levels of vaccination and infection prevalence in Boston today, the risk of actually dying during your transit to work from any other source, like a car accident, may be worse than dying of COVID,” he said. “We have to make more quantitative assessments to decide whether we can resume normal life.”
Several health experts said the fear of going back into the office solely because of health concerns is based on an irrational risk evaluation, not science. And when the Biden administration’s vaccination and testing mandate for large employers goes into effect in January, they said, it will offer even more assurance that being around coworkers is not a health issue.
“There absolutely will be a time when someone really won’t be justified to say, ‘I’m not going to come into work because I’m afraid of the risk,’ ” said Pekosz, noting that immunocompromised people and those who do not respond well to vaccines still must exercise caution.
Most experts said working in an office isn’t much different from other activities people are already engaging in, although it depends on how people behave in a specific situation. For instance, Doran said large meetings with food in an office would likely be riskier than wearing a mask in a grocery store, but safer than dining indoors where the vaccination status of other guests is usually unknown.
For some workers, it’s getting to work by bus, subway, or train that is more worrisome than being in an office with colleagues. But Bazant said the fact that most people are vaccinated, can wear a mask, and are typically on public transportation for a short period of time makes commuting less risky than it might seem.
“We all know how crowded the T can get, so certainly there are elevated risks, [but] the level of risk is not the same as it was a year ago,” he said.
There are, of course, other reasons why employees may not want to go back to in-person work, at least not in the same way as they did before the pandemic. Doron, who consults with companies on back-to-work plans, said employers need to understand whether employees are worried about catching COVID-19 in a cubicle, or if their concerns involve issues such as child care, the loss of flexible work schedules, and having to return to spending money and time commuting.
“[Companies] tell me that they have employees that are nervous about coming back. . . . . I’m sure they also have employees that are going to nightclubs,” Doron said. “They may just like working from home.”