It is stunning to think that American business is being asked to manage the return to workplace and the vaccination of its employees with little or no support from Government at any level. The premature declaration of victory in June by the Administration saying that masks were no longer required, the recent proclamations about required vaccines for members of the armed services, the new suggestion by the CDC on mask-wearing in indoor spaces, and the declaration by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis that he will withhold pay from district superintendents and school board members requiring masks in classrooms have completely eviscerated any trust in public sector mandates. Meanwhile, the Delta variant is causing a new surge in the U.S., with new Covid cases approaching February levels.
This is exactly the opposite of what I had hoped for as summer draws to a close. The return to school would facilitate return to workplace for those who had been working remotely. The vaccination levels would reach 70 percent, enough for herd immunity. Masks would cease to be necessary except in crowded restaurants or movie theaters. There would be a public consensus on a date for return to the office led by non-profits such as the Partnership for New York City, with guarantees on flexible commuting hours and hybrid schedules. It is proving wishful thinking.
Business itself is deeply polarized on return to workplace. The financial firms are the most adamant about being on site as the key to operating efficiency, demanding five days a week in office. Meanwhile, tech firms continue to postpone return to office, with some setting a target date of 2022. CEOs are struggling with fundamental decisions, such as mandatory vaccination for employees and mask-wearing in office.
I spoke with Dean Michelle Williams of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health about the present situation. Her analysis as follows:
- Business Has to Lead — “This is a version 2.0 of what business did a year ago about mask-wearing. It took the Business Roundtable and a coalition of retailers to make mask-wearing a fundamental responsibility of both employees and customers as they came to stores.”
- Need Mandatory Vaccination — “This public health imperative has been horribly politicized. Biden-Harris alone cannot carry the heavy weight of mandates. And if you mandate a vaccine that is not FDA approved, you have legal liability. Your best play is to insist on vaccine as a condition for entering the workplace.”
- Power in Numbers — The Covid Collaborative brings together trade associations (NAM, BRT, Chamber of Commerce) with academics and former elected officials to advocate for Covid 19 vaccines. The Collaborative recently published a letter in USA Today asking American businesses to create #COVIDSafeZones.
- Fill Policy Voids — Governor DeSantis has said that cruise ships leaving from his state will not require proof of vaccination before leaving shore. The risk of seaborne outbreak is thereby enhanced. The cruise ship owners could preempt this by offering a viable alternative policy.
I would add one further point; the CEOs of companies large and small need to speak up now about vaccination and masks, to their employees, their suppliers and their communities. It should be couched in terms of freedom and respect for individual decision rights. But freedom requires all of us to make an effort, to get friends and families protected. With the rising tide of disease, a formal FDA approval within weeks for the COVID vaccine and access for 5–12-year-old children, there will never be a better time to push on behalf of all of us.
Richard Edelman is CEO.