With more people getting vaccinated for COVID-19, many companies have started bringing workers back to the office. But not everyone wants to get vaccinated, and not everyone who does will respond positively. This begs a question: can we safely return to office life as we knew it or do we still need to wear masks?
To get a clearer understanding of new mask rules and office etiquette, we spoke with Dr. David Agus, a renowned physician and founding director of the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine of USC. In the spring of 2020, with little concrete information existing about the virus, Agus bluntly said, “The smart thinking is: wear a mask,” pointing out that masking helps stop the spread of the disease and can help save lives.
Now, a year later, offices around the world have started reopening as vaccines have proven effective. In mid-June, Bank of America said it would begin welcoming back the 70,000 fully vaccinated employees (of the bank’s 210,000 global staff) who self-disclosed their vaccination status. BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, said it would allow fully vaccinated employees to start returning to offices in July. Those unvaccinated will not be allowed to return to BlackRock’s offices; the firm will require all employees to disclose their vaccination status by June 30. Others, like Delta Air Lines and American Airlines require masks for staff at corporate offices. Some, like Amazon and JPMorgan Chase & Co., require documented proof of vaccination while others, like Walmart, dropped mask requirements (depending on local ordinances) and rely on the honor system or don’t ask about vaccine status at all.
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So what happens with employees who don’t get vaccinated or, according to Agus, the 7% of Americans whose bodies reject the vaccine, often due to a suppressed immune system?
“We are obliged to protect those individuals by vaccinating as many people as we can, which is the whole argument for herd immunity,” Agus said. “So, if you’re a company, you have a choice. You could say, ‘Hey, if you have any medical conditions, you stay home. Or, if you haven’t been vaccinated, you stay home.’ I think we’re seeing more and more companies making the decision, in order to work in the office, in order to face a customer, in order to face another employee, you need to be vaccinated.”
Telling employees to stay away from the office may work in the short term as more companies adopt hybrid work environments, allowing for remote work. But long term, it can create division and possibly impact productivity and morale, especially for the unvaccinated.
“It’s going to be hard for [companies] to accept the liability to allow anybody inside a building where others are potentially un-vaccinated,” Agus said. “The rules change, and this is what’s so confusing. The new variants are much more infectious. Before, wearing a mask and good ventilation probably protected you in most settings. With these new variants, they may not. So, I am seeing many companies across the country saying, ‘The only employees who can come in are the vaccinated ones. The others have to figure out a way to work from home, and that may certainly affect their productivity. We’ll do everything we can to ensure their productivity and to make sure it’s possible.’”
Another issue hovers around privacy and whether a company has the right to require its employees to get vaccinated or to disclose their vaccination status. Some argue vaccine mandates are illegal, but a company now legally can require employees to get vaccinated.
“We have a right to privacy, but at the same time, that privacy does not give you the right to harm others,” Agus said. “There certainly is privacy. You have a right not to tell your company about your vaccine, but then you don’t have a right to come in. You don’t have a right to face a customer.”
This makes it more difficult to reach herd immunity and to fully get back to doing business in person. As long as people continue to travel, whether vaccinated or not, and companies allow hybrid situations, Agus argues to keep everyone safe and to keep COVID-19 at bay, we will continue to need to wear masks.
“The problem is that in the rest of the world, the virus is taking off and more variants are being created,” Agus said. “Right now, if you’re a U.S. citizen and you’re abroad, you have a right to come back. You can imagine somebody coming back from another part of the globe and bringing a variant here. So, until we’re controlled globally, we can’t let our guard down because bad things can happen.”
Agus is quick to remind that the vaccines have proven successful in protecting people from getting COVID-19 and mitigating the threat to the unvaccinated. Even as companies redesign and rethink office spaces, they’re still close indoor quarters and, if people who haven’t gotten vaccinated return to offices, Agus says their coworkers should step up to protect them. That comes from wearing a mask.
“Getting vaccinated is not just thinking about yourself, but it’s thinking about your community because we have to protect each other,” he added. “We all have to stand up and be one, and if we are, we’re going to come out of this. We’re going to come out of it stronger and better, and we’re going to protect the vulnerable. It is critical.”