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Office workers walk toward the Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York on July 22, 2021.
Office workers walk toward the Goldman Sachs headquarters in New York on July 22, 2021. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

Stunned business executives are struggling to adjust to the rapidly shifting environment caused by COVID-19′s delta variant, rocked by a cascade of evolving mask and vaccine recommendations from federal, state, and local officials. In many cases, they are instituting new mask or vaccine guidelines — or requirements — within hours of shifting government reports.

The burst of new policies, which has intensified in just the past few days, has jolted automakers in Detroit, retailers in Texas, state universities in Missouri, technology giants in California, and now theme park and hospitality workers in Florida, California, Hawaii and elsewhere.

In the latest development, Walt Disney Co. on Friday told all salaried and nonunion hourly employees that they must be vaccinated by the end of September. Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, also announced it will mandate vaccines for workers at its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. The retail giant also doubled its cash incentive, to $150, for store and warehouse workers who get the vaccine.

“As we all know, the pandemic is not over, and the Delta variant has led to an increase in infection rates across much of the U.S.,” chief executive Doug McMillon said in a memo to employees on Friday. “We want to get to a place where we can use our offices and be together safely.”

Many of these new policies about masks and vaccines are coming at a time when much of the country had believed the virus would be in the rearview mirror.

“I think we were all hoping we’d be through all of this at this point,” said Kelli Felker, global manufacturing and labor communications manager at Ford Motor Co., which said Friday it had added Georgia to the list of states where all employees will have to wear masks regardless of vaccine status — a policy already reinstated earlier in the week for workers in Kentucky, Missouri and Florida.

Other big companies have also moved aggressively in recent days, with Google and Facebook announcing a vaccine requirement for all workers and Citigroup reinstituting a universal mask mandate. But many other firms appeared to freeze, uncertain how to respond to a situation that seemed to be constantly shifting and an about-face recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for everyone to wear masks in most indoor settings — even if they’re vaccinated — to counter the dangerous delta variant.

As the White House followed that up Thursday with an announcement that all federal workers will have to be vaccinated, a growing number of cities and states that had not already taken that step followed suit.

San Diego County announced a vaccine requirement for its public workforce, while the governor of North Carolina issued an executive order for state workers to get vaccinated and called on businesses to also demand that workers receive the vaccine. But if the intent was to counter the alarming new COVID surge — with cases up more than 60% across the U.S. in the last week — the upshot appeared to be widespread uncertainty and confusion.

Some companies announced new policies but multiple others stood by their old ones while mulling what to do next. Others ducked the muddle entirely by keeping their employees working from home well into the future.

“We don’t feel any pressure to go back just yet,” said Jonathan Johnson, chief executive of online furniture retailer Overstock, which is waiting until at least January 2022 to bring its 1,500 corporate workers back to its Midvale, Utah, headquarters. “With the delta variant and the spike in cases and hospitalizations, I’m sure glad we’re not back in the office wondering, ‘OK, is time to shuffle back home?’”

The challenge is particularly acute for corporations with operations in multiple states juggling public health rules and case rates that differ wildly from one place to another. Among companies that are trying to make hires amid a nationwide worker shortage, there was some reluctance to publicize new mandates. Meanwhile, public and private educational institutions that had spent all summer making plans for a return to in-person instruction suddenly faced a perilous new landscape of case rates rising beyond levels that had been deemed acceptable by local authorities.

At the University of Maryland, officials said they were “still actively planning for a return to full campus operations for the fall semester,” but would “not hesitate to adjust our plans or implement more stringent measures if needed.” The University of Missouri announced they were reinstating indoor masking requirements through at least mid-September.

In California, which moved before the federal government to require vaccinations for public employees, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom was actively encouraging private employers to get their workers vaccinated, said spokesman Alex Stack. Changes were underway at a number of businesses in addition to Disney, with Netflix moving to require all cast members to get vaccinated, according to a report in Deadline Hollywood. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We are definitely seeing businesses rethink their plans right now,” said Maria Salinas, head of the Los Angeles Area U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Business leaders are very concerned.”

In Las Vegas, MGM Resorts said employees would have to get vaccinated or pay for weekly coronavirus tests, and visitors would have to wear masks. Citigroup this week reinstated mask requirements for all employees, regardless of vaccination status. Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor, said it is continuing to monitor official guidelines while adhering to a patchwork of state, local and federal requirements.

“Whatever the guidance is, we follow it,” said spokesman Trent Perrotto. “Things are obviously in flux so right now it’s a lot of wait-and-see.”

For corporate executives no matter the industry, questions around masking, vaccinations and other COVID policies are now urgent, said Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at Gartner.

Even companies that aren’t mandating vaccines are increasingly providing perks to those who get them, Kropp said. Retailers like Walmart and Dollar General are promising extra pay and cash bonuses to inoculated workers, while other firms are limiting access to office gyms, cafeterias, shuttles and free lunches to vaccinated employees.

“It’s been a real shift from, ‘Hey, you should really get vaccinated,’ to ‘We’re going to create as many incentives as possible so that it’s in your best interest to be vaccinated,’” Kropp said.

But, he added, companies are hoping for more direction from the federal government. Many are struggling to work through a patchwork of guidelines from a variety of government entities.

“It’s very difficult for companies to navigate this,” Kropp said. “How do you balance safety versus freedom? Whatever they decide, they’re going to aggravate and alienate some part of their workforce.”

Nonetheless, a growing number of smaller companies have decided to require that employees — and in some cases, even customers — provide proof of vaccination. Union Square Hospitality Group, which owns high-end restaurants including Gramercy Tavern in New York and Maialino Mare in Washington, D.C., is requiring that all employees and new hires be fully vaccinated by Sept. 7. Guests who dine or drink indoors will also have to show a copy of their coronavirus vaccine card or a state-provided pass, spokeswoman Katie Chaplin said.

The Green Gate Garden Center in Seguin, Texas, began mandating vaccines for all customer-facing employees two weeks ago. All but one of its roughly 15 store workers complied, said office manager Robyn Wolters.

“We realized we had to very clear about it: You’re either vaccinated or you can’t work here,” said Wolters, who has two heart stents, putting her at high risk for COVID complications. “We’ve been very fortunate that nobody here has gotten COVID, but you just can’t trust everybody to do the right thing.”

Meanwhile in San Antonio, Texas, City Councilman John Courage sent his staff home on Monday after a sharp rise in local infection and hospitalization rates. He’d spent the previous week on vacation, in New England, and said he began to panic when he returned home and saw new COVID cases surging.

“I just couldn’t, in good conscience, put my staff or my constituents at risk,” he said. “We’ve worked remotely for over a year — and have been incredibly effective and efficient — which shows that going into our offices isn’t necessary for us to do our job.”

Courage said he’d just begun to let his guard down about six weeks ago, when the city started phasing employees back into offices. His staff began coming back into the office — one person at a time, most days — and congregating for staff meetings on Mondays. He was looking forward to having more community outreach events.

But all of that is on hold now. If his employees do want to meet with constituents, Courage is asking that they gather outdoors in small groups and wear masks.

MilliporeSigma, a life sciences firm headquartered in Burlington, Mass., briefly lifted its mask requirement this summer but is reinstating it beginning Monday, a company spokesman said.

Early in the pandemic, employees at a lab outside Washington, D.C., worked a split schedule, logging 10-hour shifts for three or four days a week. But since November, they’ve been back at the office full time, according to an associate scientist who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“This isn’t a field where we can work from home during the pandemic,” said the employee. “It’s especially important that everyone stays safe.”

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