As Delta Variant Surges, Companies Consider Options On Masks And Vaccines September was expected to be the month of mass returns to the office. Now the surging extra-contagious coronavirus variant has employers wondering what to do.

Back To The Office? Not Yet. Companies Scramble To Adjust To The Delta Variant

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For a while, it seemed like things were getting somewhat back to a pre-pandemic normal. Then came the delta variant. So some companies that had been planning a big return to the office in the fall are now rethinking those plans, and more and more are laying down the line on vaccines. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: With the latest surge in COVID, how do you keep your workforce safe? Well, the nation's largest employer is trying something big.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Every federal government employee will be asked to attest to their vaccination status.

HSU: That's President Biden speaking yesterday. He laid out a choice for some 4 million federal workers and contractors - get vaccinated or submit to regular testing once or twice a week. Also, wear a mask and social distance.

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BIDEN: We all want our lives to get back to normal. And fully vaccinated workplaces will - will make that happen more quickly and more successfully.

HSU: The federal government is by far the biggest employer to do this. And Biden has staked his presidency on ending the pandemic. But companies all over the U.S. are trying to figure out how best to respond to this latest COVID surge when even vaccinated people may be at risk.

DAVID LEWIS: I mean, this is a Rubik's Cube with a thousand colors on each side.

HSU: David Lewis is CEO of the human resources consulting practice OperationsInc. He's been fielding calls from clients asking, should we require vaccines? Should we bring back masks? Those are not simple questions, he says. Take masks - earlier this week, the CDC reversed course and urged everyone, even fully vaccinated people, to wear masks indoors again in places where the virus is surging. But without a state or local mandate, Lewis says a company requiring masks in the workplace can be tricky business.

LEWIS: It does potentially engender a greater level of fear than perhaps is warranted in those circumstances. It does engender a greater level of resistance on the part of your employees to then want to come into the office as a whole.

HSU: Of course, this depends a lot on what kind of business you are and where you are. Walmart said today all store employees in COVID hot spots would once again have to wear masks. Ford this week reinstated masks at its plants in Missouri, Florida and Kentucky. For the most part, David Lewis is urging his clients not to rush into big decisions. He says, look, we don't know exactly how long this surge is going to last. But he is evolving on one topic, and that is when to bring remote workers back to the office.

LEWIS: We were advising clients to look at that Tuesday or Wednesday after Labor Day.

HSU: Now, though, he's leaning toward if you can wait, wait.

LEWIS: If you can maintain the remote work relationship you've had up until this point, time should heal a lot of these challenges.

HSU: And some are waiting. This week, Google said it's delayed its planned return from September to mid-October. The New York Times said today it's putting off its return indefinitely. Amazon, for now, is sticking with its original plan. Here's Amazon chief financial officer Brian Olsavsky yesterday.

BRIAN OLSAVSKY: Right now, our plans remain the same. We're still aiming for a return to office in September. We are focusing our efforts on getting more vaccines for our employees and helping them get vaccinated.

HSU: Amazon is not requiring vaccines at this time, though. Google, Facebook and Twitter are for people who will be going into the office. And then a lot of other employers are still taking some time to figure things out. Goldman Sachs, which brought workers back in June, said no changes for now, but they're watching things closely; ditto for Morgan Stanley. Marriott told me its mask policy is under discussion. These companies and others did say they will comply with any state or local regulations. And at least when it comes to mask mandates, more are definitely coming.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

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