Bay Area grapples with COVID reopening

As the Bay Area continues its bumpy reopening process, going back to work has rarely been so fraught with anxiety.

Will you need to wear a mask? What will team meetings look like? Can you have lunch with co-workers in the breakroom? What should you wear?

It’s enough to give anyone back-to-work jitters.

“They know it’s going to be different,” said Dennis King, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Small Business Development Center in Silicon Valley. “They’re not quite sure how yet.”

With COVID cases declining and vaccination rates rising, many people who have been working from home for the last 15 months now face the prospect of an imminent return to the office. And those who have been reporting to essential businesses this whole time, toiling behind facemasks, layers of plexiglass and other safety barriers, may soon see some of those protections change — or even vanish entirely.

State regulators are still trying to figure out what COVID precautions will be mandated in California workplaces, after rescinding rules that would have required all workers to wear a mask if one person in the room was not vaccinated, and on Friday proposing new rules that would allow vaccinated workers to remove their masks. In the meantime, employers are busy re-thinking everything from workplace layouts to company social events to employee schedules.

Don’t expect to jump right back into traditions like gossiping around the water cooler, gathering in the breakroom for lunch or sharing a communal pot of coffee. There may be new germ barriers between your desk and your neighbor’s. And meetings may consist of half the participants sitting around a conference table in the office, with the rest dialing in on Zoom from home.

Many employers are allowing work-from-home to continue a few days a week, said Melissa Rea, director of programs and marketing for the Concord Chamber of Commerce.

“You talk to one person and they are ‘No way. I want to work from home, this is how I feel comfortable working,’” she said. “But we’re hearing a lot of ‘When can we get back out? When can we start networking?’”

Lili Henry, a San Francisco-based personal stylist, has seen demand for her services increase by as much as 75% over the past month as people look for back-to-work wardrobes. After wearing sweatpants for more than a year, and in some cases outgrowing their old professional clothes, many are hoping new attire will boost their confidence and quell their anxiety about leaving the house, Henry said.

“People are seeing it as a new start,” she said. “Almost like it’s going back to school.”

At Velo3D, a Campbell-based company that makes 3D printing technology, employees were given a choice earlier this year — get a COVID-19 vaccine or quit.

“If you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to work (here),” said CEO Benny Buller, who outlined his bold stance in a USA Today opinion piece. “I just want you to be protected and make sure you’re not infecting the rest of my team.”

All but two of the company’s roughly 120 employees got the shot, Buller said. One was exempted for medical reasons, and the other resigned rather than get inoculated.

The last of Velo3D’s vaccinated employees will reach full immunity Monday, which means masks will come off.

George Lahlouh, who co-owns two downtown San Jose bars, is taking a different approach. Workers at Paper Plane and Miniboss must continue to wear masks for the foreseeable future, even if they are vaccinated — no matter what the state rules say.

“We don’t really have anything to work off here,” Lahlouh said. “This is unprecedented. And we definitely don’t want to make the staff feel unsafe.”

Customers are a different story. After debating using wristbands or hand stamps to tell who is vaccinated, Lahlouh will probably ask un-vaccinated patrons to keep their masks on, and rely on the honor system for enforcement. To protect the bartenders, he won’t allow customers to sit at the bar.

At Facebook, a company known for its free, gourmet meals, the famed cafeterias are closed for now. The company reopened its Menlo Park headquarters at 10% capacity last month, and will require masks and weekly COVID testing as people continue to return to the office.

To reduce the spread of germs, Palo Alto-based GSR Ventures got rid of its shared coffee machine. Instead, employees of the venture capital firm can help themselves to single-serving canned lattes from the fridge, said partner Sunny Kumar.

The firm plans to implement a hybrid work week, where employees come to the office a few days a week, and work from home a few days. To help bridge the gap between those who are in the office and those at home, GSR plans to improve its video conferencing technology and convert an office into a designated video conferencing room.

New apps also are helping with the transition. Companies are using startups such as Eden Workplace and Envoy to let employees book desks before coming into the office, ensuring the workspace doesn’t get too crowded. Workers also can use apps to record their vaccination status and work schedule.

For many people who soon will be returning to the office, there is a certain amount of anxiety.

“Coming to the office, they’re going to have to learn once again how to interact with each other,” King said. “It’s been more than a year where they’re essentially isolated. So they’re going to have to redefine their social experience — whether they have coffee breaks together, how they interact and what kinds of meetings take place.”

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