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‘Everything is wait-and-see.’ Omicron forces uncertainty on long-struggling businesses

New variant has a few companies delaying their return to the office, though broader cancellations so far are few.

Shoppers passed Charles Street Supply in Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Return-to-office plans in limbo. Holiday gatherings in the balance. Travel potentially on hold. After 20 months of near-endless uncertainty, the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 has the Boston-area business community on edge once again.

And it comes at yet another inflection point in the long-running pandemic.

The national surge in caseloads driven by the Delta variant has largely subsided, and children as young as 5 can finally be vaccinated. Yet cases are on the rise in New England, and business owners continue to follow health reports closely as winter approaches and customers head inside.

Now, the quickly spreading Omicron has retailers worried that holiday shoppers will avoid stores during peak buying season, and some employers that have already pushed their return-to-the office dates into the new year are delaying them once again.

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Executives at Cape Cod 5 had been planning to call employees back to the bank’s Hyannis headquarters two days a week starting Jan. 3. But between employees still trying to schedule booster shots and the upcoming holidays, and now the Omicron news, the bank will push back the office return until March 1, at least.

Cape Cod 5 copresident Matt Burke said it didn’t make sense to stick to the January return when the 300 workers at headquarters would likely have had to wear masks at their desks when everyone is there.

“If I’m an employee, I’m sitting here saying, ‘Why did you drag me in here to sit in front of my computer with my mask on?’ ” Burke said. “We have the luxury to work remotely and wait this out a little bit longer. Hopefully we don’t have to wait until spring.”

But other companies are holding tight for now. Boston cybersecurity firm Rapid7 plans to bring teams back to the office three days a week starting Jan. 3, while Dell Technologies is reopening its five Massachusetts offices to employees on a voluntary basis — provided they are vaccinated or get tested weekly — as of Jan. 4. Likewise, at Springfield insurance company MassMutual, working on-site will remain voluntary for vaccinated employees.

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For small businesses that rely on customers feeling confident enough to walk inside, Omicron is yet another blow after months full of them.

Jennifer DeFlorio, sales associate at December Thieves Next Door on Boston's Charles Street, arranged some display shelves. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

News of the new variant is “very concerning” to Lana Barakat, owner of downtown boutique December Thieves and its sister store Thieves Next Door, but it’s still too early to know if it will take a toll on foot traffic. Her stores are prepared to restrict capacity, she said, even if retailers aren’t mandated to do so.

“As a small business, we have persevered quite a bit over the last couple of years and we’re hoping that this is not going to be detrimental to business,” Barakat said. “But should it be, we are ready to do what we need to do to get through it.”

Omicron was on everyone’s minds at a Monday meeting of Massachusetts Restaurants United, an industry group representing independent restaurants, said executive director Nancy Batista-Caswell, who owns Oak + Rowan in Fort Point and two spots in Newburyport.

“We’re all slightly apprehensive,” she said. It’s still hard for workers to find over-the-counter COVID tests, Batista-Caswell said, and she’s wondering how comfortable people will feel hosting Christmas parties at restaurants — even if those were expected to be smaller gatherings.

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“I think that everybody wants to return in some fashion to being social, and now they have this concern about what’s appropriate to do,” she said. “I think everyone has a little PTSD.”

The lack of information about Omicron, such as transmission rates and severity of infections, makes it difficult to know how to respond, said Bradford Bell, professor of human resources at Cornell University. Workers want transparency, but it’s difficult to share concrete plans when the landscape continues to shift.

“It keeps getting kind of disrupted,” he said.

So some companies are putting off big decisions, again. Boston home-financing tech startup Hometap, which doesn’t have a permanent space but rents offices and conference rooms when it needs them, had been planning to sign a lease next year. But with remote work now likely to continue longer than expected, chief executive Jeff Glass said in an e-mail, the variant has “reduced the urgency in finding the right longer-term space.”

Pandemic uncertainty has been an ongoing issue for consumers and businesses alike, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. Despite the new variant, he’s hopeful the high vaccination rate in Massachusetts will ward off a repeat of last year’s holiday season, when businesses limited capacity, consumers avoided in-person shopping, and “so many important dollars left our local economy.”

Even before Omicron introduced a new layer of worry, travelers were grappling with rapidly changing advisories and border-crossing rules. Wanderu, a Boston-based company that helps travelers book bus and train tickets in North America and Europe, has been fielding inquiries about the recently reopened United States-Canada border, said director of communications Staffo Dobrev.

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Christmas shoppers along Charles Street in BostonDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“So far, people are mostly concerned with whether they’d be able to get a refund in case the border closes again and they are unable to go on their trips,” he said.

Then there are business trips, which are back up in the air at some companies.

At Framingham software firm Workhuman, which has a hub in Ireland where employees frequently visit, the company plans to closely scrutinize business travel, said chief human resources officer Steve Pemberton. And they are discussing whether employees should get a booster shot, not just a vaccine, before traveling or even coming into the office.

“The question initially was, ‘Have you been vaccinated?,’ ” Pemberton said. “I think the new variant means you’re now going to be asking, ‘Have you had a booster?’ ”

Unfortunately, everything is “wait and see,” he added. “Folks want clarity, but the reality is, [we] don’t know yet because the scientists don’t know.”

Still, not much has actually been canceled due to Omicron. Not yet anyway.

Amy Finsilver, general manager at Beacon Hill hotel XV Beacon, said no bookings have been lost to the new variant. She expects the 63-room hotel to be sold out for New Year’s Eve, when guests can see fireworks over Boston Common from the roof deck. Stringent cleaning policies are still in place, she said, including purifying the air in each room with ultraviolet germicidal irradiation after guests leave, then doing it again after the room is cleaned and before the next set of guests arrive.

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“We’re still going 500 miles per hour,” she said. “We’ve never let our guard down in thinking that this will be over. We’ve somewhat accepted the fact that this is the new way of doing business.”

Anissa Gardizy, Gal Tziperman Lotan, and Angela Yang of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston. Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos. Pranshu Verma can be reached at pranshu.verma@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @pranshuverma_.