Heading into the new year, as COVID-19 cases surge, office employers are yet again wrestling with return-to-work plans.
There’s a new wrinkle: Breakthrough cases among employees are expected to become common, so companies are figuring out how to deal with that risk once they reopen.
But in the past week, several large companies in Greater Boston have closed their offices, which had been open on a voluntary basis, or have delayed their return timelines. The situation mirrors the response to the Delta variant, which led to a slew of reopening delays around Labor Day. Now, it is rising cases and the Omicron variant that are wreaking havoc on plans for 2022.
Public health experts say the situation is much different from nearly two years ago, when COVID-19 first emerged in the United States. Back then, the closure of private businesses was a precursor to government-mandated lockdowns. They say we’re in a much better place, armed with the knowledge and tools to reopen safely, even as cases continue to surge.
So why doesn’t it feel that way? Instead, companies seem to be retreating.
Boston tech firm Klaviyo temporarily closed its office downtown so it could reassess its safety protocols after a handful of employees tested positive for COVID. Cybersecurity firm Rapid7 delayed the full reopening of its North Station office from next month to February, and also offered a first-quarter office “opt-out” to employees who “don’t feel quite ready to come back yet due to their home life situation.” Software developer PTC, headquartered in the Seaport, delayed its mandatory return from January to April. (The Boston Globe said it won’t require employees to return any earlier than March.)
Many others are not providing any new timing estimates.
Fidelity Investments closed its offices in Boston and around New England earlier this month over COVID-19 concerns, without saying when they might reopen. The state’s largest health insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, pushed back its formal reopening, which was set for early January, indefinitely. And a note went out to all John Hancock employees in North America on Friday, informing them that the company would take a similar approach, no longer requiring people to return next month.
“We’ve all been hearing a lot in the news about the Omicron variant, and its implications for gatherings in the coming weeks and beyond,” John Hancock’s parent company, Manulife Financial Corp, wrote in an e-mail to employees.
The local announcements mirrored national trends in the corporate world. Last week, Apple said it would delay its return indefinitely. JP Morgan called off its annual health care conference — moving it to virtual — less than a month before hundreds of industry executives and investors planned to travel to San Francisco. (If top health innovators, including Moderna, don’t want to gather in-person in January, should anyone?)
The science on office returns hasn’t changed, though.
“Can people come back to the office right now? The answer is yes,” said Joe Allen, an associate professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Allen, who co-authored a book called “Healthy Buildings,” is an expert in keeping people safe indoors. His unequivocal position on whether people can safely occupy office buildings comes from his understanding of how airborne diseases spread and which risk-mitigation measures work best to limit transmission.
“We didn’t dream these strategies up when COVID hit,” he said. “These are tried and true practices that I’ve personally used in buildings for a long time.”
He said companies that require employees to be vaccinated — better yet, boosted — and ensure buildings have proper air filtrations systems should be able to reopen. Measures such as contact tracing, masking, testing, or social distancing would be added precautions depending on employees’ risk tolerance.
Gregg Gonsalves, an expert in infectious disease policy at Yale University, said he doesn’t understand the “rationale for keeping everybody at home now, when there are ways to minimize risk.”
“Maybe [businesses] can’t afford to put in the new HVAC system, maybe their employees are half vaccinated ... or people are realizing they can do work at home,” he said.
Allen said positive COVID-19 cases should not automatically derail reopening plans.
“This is something every company is going to have to deal with a lot more frequently,” he said. “Companies are going to have to determine what their goals are, and if the goal is zero cases, I don’t think that’s realistic.”
At Rapid7, employees wear contact-tracing devices in the office, which monitor whether they’ve been in close contact with someone who tested positive. If so, employees get a Slack notification that explains what they need to do before they can return: stay at home for 10 days, or receive a negative PCR test.
Allen understands why employers are hesitant to reopen, given the uncertainty surrounding Omicron.
“Some of this comes down to perception of risk,” he said. “Anxiety is high.”
Julia Fernandes works at a Boston law firm that requires people to be in the office five days a week. Walking from the T to her building on Friday morning, she said the Omicron variant “makes me a little nervous,” since she is immunocompromised.
But she takes some comfort in the fact that her coworkers are required to be both vaccinated and masked. And her company is letting employees work from home for the rest of December.
Boston’s schools and universities have been farther ahead when it comes to bringing people back in-person. But Harvard University officials said Saturday the school would pivot to mostly virtual learning during the first three weeks of January. (Most universities require vaccinations, mandate masks, and offer regular COVID-19 testing.)
Dr. Judy Platt, who runs student health services at Boston University, said during a virtual event hosted by the Globe that some companies might not be as prepared as colleges to implement COVID-19 safety protocols. Last week, Boston University joined other schools in announcing it would include booster doses in its campus vaccine mandate, a protocol that is becoming increasingly common across businesses, sports, and arts.
Some businesses had been holding out for President Biden’s vaccine-or-weekly-testing mandate for private employers with more than 100 employees, which was set to go into effect on Jan. 4. A federal court temporarily blocked the mandate last month, but on Friday a federal appeals panel overturned that decision.
It’s no longer clear when the mandate will go into effect, but Gonsalves said it is time for the private sector to “step up.” A recent survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that three-quarters of respondents would probably not require vaccines or testing if the federal mandate is permanently struck down.
“They’re basically saying they’re willing to tolerate an unsafe work environment, and that they don’t want the liability,” Gonsalves said.
Some businesses have implemented their own vaccine mandates, but the absence of a federal rule is having a noticeable effect on which workers are protected. Framingham-based TJX recently upped its vaccine mandate to include boosters, but the mandate only applies to office workers and not the thousands of people who work in the retail stores or distribution centers of Marshalls or T.J. Maxx.
For all the announcements of delayed returns, there’s still a steady stream of workers who commute to offices in Greater Boston.
Even Friday, as the holidays were approaching, dozens of workers in business jackets and vests shuffled into office towers, and some could be heard taking business calls from the sidewalks of the Financial District. Some even lugged around boxes covered in wrapping paper — a sign, perhaps, that not all companies canceled their holiday parties.
But the numbers are paltry compared to what the bustling district used to look like. And now people are left wondering: When will more companies admit they’re not coming back?