New C.D.C. Mask Guidance Complicates Return-to-Office Plans

Companies that have already opened their doors must decide whether to retrench on masking policies. Others are weighing vaccine mandates.,

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New C.D.C. mask guidance complicates back-to-office plans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its mask guidance for vaccinated Americans on Tuesday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its mask guidance for vaccinated Americans on Tuesday.Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
  • July 28, 2021, 9:40 a.m. ET

Two months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was OK for vaccinated people to forgo masks indoors, the agency reversed course on Tuesday, saying that Americans should put masks on again — at least in areas where the coronavirus infection rate is high.

The official guidance — swayed by research on the Delta variant, which is causing rising case counts and “breakthrough” infections of vaccinated people — is aimed at places where the virus is surging. At the moment, that covers nearly two-thirds of U.S. counties. Per the guidance, all residents of Florida, vaccinated or not, should wear masks indoors.

The announcement complicates return-to-office plans for many companies at a time the Delta variant is already forcing some of them to push back their start dates. Asana, a software company, told employees last week that it was pushing its return-to-office date for all employees in San Francisco and New York to no earlier than Feb. 1, a person familiar with the situation said. The company is also mandating vaccines for all employees coming into the office.

Companies that have already opened their doors must decide whether to retrench on masking policies. When the C.D.C. lifted its masking guidance in May, many companies issued new guidelines allowing fully vaccinated employees and customers to return without masks. The move served as an important incentive for workers, as well as a signal that the pandemic was winding down. For employees, it provided a sense of safety and normality in returning to offices.

Walmart, which began to allow fully vaccinated employees to go mask-free in May, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did a spokeswoman for Kroger, which has likewise reduced its masking restrictions.

In New York City, finance firms have already begun to call back workers. Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, which allow fully vaccinated employees to go mask-free, had no comment about the C.D.C.’s announcement. A spokeswoman for American Express said the company had “no updates to share,” as the company is not back in the office yet.

“People are enjoying their freedom, so I don’t know if we’re going to go back or not,” said Alana Ackels, a labor lawyer at Bell Nunnally. She added that after the C.D.C.’s guidance in May, her phone “was ringing off the hook because everyone wanted to get rid of the mask.” On Tuesday evening, after the agency’s reversal, “I haven’t gotten a single call about it,” she said.

MGM Resorts International, the casino and hotel giant, said Tuesday it would require all guests and visitors to wear masks indoors in public areas, “based on the latest information and guidance from health experts and public officials.”

The National Retail Federation, which represents businesses on the front lines of managing and enforcing public masking policies, said in a statement that “retailers will continue to follow the guidance of the C.D.C.” It added, “It is truly unfortunate that mask recommendations have returned when the surest known way to reduce the threat of the virus is widespread vaccination.”

The C.D.C.’s move may spur more corporate vaccine mandates, said David Schwartz, who runs the labor group at the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. This might be a preferable alternative to “requiring employees and customers to wear masks and not being able to maintain a consistent policy,” he said. The Washington Post on Tuesday joined a short but growing list of private companies requiring vaccination as a condition of employment.

If businesses think vaccine mandates are beneficial, “we encourage them to do so,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C.’s director.

Government officials have been imposing vaccine mandates at the state, local and federal levels recently, and encouraging private companies to follow suit. President Biden is weighing a vaccine mandate for all two million federal employees, and is expected to deliver a speech on Thursday about it.

Kellen Browning and Sarah Kessler contributed reporting.

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