Aishwarya Sangle only recently discovered what her co-workers look like.
The 26-year-old intern at the Gates Corporation had only seen them with masks on since she started working there in January. Masking was suggested, and most people in the office were following the recommendation.
“I imagined the mask as a part of their face, so I didn't know how that person looked below the nose. That part was missing,” said Sangle, while walking home from the office Thursday evening with fellow Gates intern Yash Kotnis. “We’re still hesitant to go close to people, but I guess it will take some time to be normal with them.”
Sangle and Kotnis are part of a historic moment in Colorado’s path out of the pandemic. More than two years after the first cases of COVID-19 recorded in the state sent people to work from home in droves, businesses across the Front Range are navigating how, and if, to return to the workplace.
Hesitancy is an inevitable part of the return. There were false-hope moments throughout the last two years, when workers began the trek back into the office, only to be forced home again by the delta and omicron variants.
“I'm concerned that we don't have enough evidence yet that this is going to become completely endemic and then we'll end up with another wave and we'll have lots of cases, lots of deaths,” Craig Watts, a service desk technician at the University of Colorado system, said.
However, health experts say Colorado is in a really good place right now, and that things will only continue to improve. With 90% of Coloradans immune to omicron, case numbers are at all-pandemic lows — and the state is transitioning to an endemic response plan — this homecoming seems more stable.
Adaptability is a must due to the shifting nature of the pandemic
Relaxed COVID-19 protocols in Colorado and the rest of the country are, of course, subject to change. And adaptability is a must, according to Dr. Lee Newman, who heads the Center for Health, Work and Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz.
“At this moment, it's safer to come back to the office than at virtually any time since the start of the pandemic,” Dr. Newman said. “What I've been telling employers is, we're at a point of time where they can relax, but stay vigilant, because we really don't know what the future will hold.”
It’s important for employers, he said, to keep things as flexible as possible for employees transitioning back to the office. There will still be people who have to straddle different responsibilities at home, he said, and those who are at higher risk for severe infection or have higher risk family and friends. Dr. Newman recommended employers address this by allowing employees to set up their own return to work plans.
“How can we get people into a comfortable place returning to work in the original office, but at the same time, recognizing that there's going to still be a lot of concern and uncertainty,” he said.
It’s vital that employers be transparent about COVID-19 policies and protocols, as well, said Dr. Newman. Employees should be entitled to ask questions if they’re unsure of anything. And employers should encourage a work environment that isn’t dogmatic. That, he said, can lead people to look for jobs elsewhere.
“And so, even if the masks are coming off, I think giving people the option that if they still feel more comfortable wearing a mask in the workplace, that we don't want to stigmatize them for doing that. We want to respect that some people will have their reasons for wanting to continue to mask up and still be cautious.”
People may continue wearing masks in the workplace if they have children who can’t get vaccinated yet, or if they are immunocompromised. Throughout the pandemic, those most vulnerable to the virus have been told to simply stay home if they don’t want to get sick. But now, as a return to the office looms, Julie Reiskin, the executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition, said workplaces need to accommodate everyone.
“Many disabled people need remote work for all or some of their job for a variety of disability related reasons,” she said in an email. “Certainly those who are compromised or live with someone who is should be given this accommodation because many are at risk for severe illness even if they are vaccinated and take all precautions, and even from a more mild variant.”
Companies of all sizes have had to embrace this light-handed approach. Comcast, the telecommunications conglomerate with office space in Denver, has reopened its offices but aren’t requiring employees to come in, a spokesperson said. While a mandated return isn’t in the cards yet, they hope desk workers will come back in droves willingly. And its customer service agents are remaining remote for now.
Restaurants have already had pretty lax guidelines, but they’re loosening them even more
Meanwhile, working from home was never an option for people in Colorado's restaurant industry. While some closed their dining rooms for months at a time, that wasn’t financially feasible for many locally owned restaurants. Many stayed open, despite a hesitant public and understaffed kitchens.
Daniel Ramirez, who runs Los Dos Potrillos, a Denver-area Mexican restaurant chain, said all their employees had to wear masks during the height of the pandemic in order to keep their doors open. But now, after consulting with employees, the masks are coming off.
“A lot of [our employees] are not [wearing masks]. They're pretty much all vaccinated,” Ramirez said. “So they feel very comfortable not wearing 'em and honestly we're just ready.”
Ramirez is optimistic about the future, but knows things can change at the drop of a hat. He said while masks are coming off in the kitchen, it doesn’t mean they’re completely letting their guard down.
“Whatever comes our way, we'll figure out a way and continue to move forward."
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