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Offices, employees, and customers: The COVID mask conundrum

July 29, 2021, 11:23 PM UTC

Happy Thursday, readers.

Changes are coming (again) to businesses as they grapple with the latest round of updated Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance on proper indoor masking protocols. The agency backtracked on the laxer approach it had taken just two months ago this past week by recommending even fully vaccinated Americans (two weeks out from a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID vaccines or one dose of Johnson & Johnson’s) should wear masks in public, indoor settings if they’re in a region with a spiking number of new COVID cases driven by the dominant Delta variant.

What does that mean for stores, exactly? Depends on which company you ask and whether or not you’re talking about corporate offices, brick and mortar retail locations, employees, or customers. For instance, Google, Facebook, and Apple are all pushing back their original return-to-office plans already on the corporate level or will require employees who return to work to be vaccinated. Other tech giants such as LinkedIn are planning to stick to a hybrid model dependent on individual teams’ needs and comfort level.

But what about a smaller mom-and-pop store or the local retail chains for an Apple store? The tech giant has already pulled a 180 and is now requiring masks in areas with a growing case count. But many of the nation’s largest chains haven’t made their plans clear quite yet, including retailers that had loosened their in-store safety requirements for customers such as Walmart, Costco, and Target.

The trouble is that the CDC’s guidance is merely that: Guidance. State and local authorities are ultimately responsible for setting up enforceable laws and regulations on indoor masking in high-risk regions and, more importantly, for actually enforcing those rules on businesses. Businesses, in turn, have to decide how stringent they’ll be toward customers unwilling to go back to the days of indoor masks or if they carry any risk, legal or otherwise, if they don’t.

Consider what the CDC defines as a region that’s surging in new COVID cases: Counties where there have been more than 50 new cases per 100,000 residents within the past week. That adds up to 46% of all U.S. counties that CDC data indicate have high levels of community transmission. Another 17% that are experiencing a “substantial level” of coronavirus transmission, per that same data. That’s a whole lot of American businesses swept up in the masking quagmire.

All this is to say that the hodgepodge approach that’s bred wildly divergent COVID outcomes based on where you live and the sociopolitical preferences of the area continues unabated. And it will put added pressure on businesses, whether or not they be a major concert venue, a startup indie store, or a massive national chain that exists in both COVID-dominated locales and ones that have been better at stemming the outbreak, to play public safety police. How that will play out in the coming months is anybody’s guess.

Read on for the day’s news, and see you again next Thursday.

Sy Mukherjee


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