In early June, Tim Cook, the C.E.O. of Apple, announced that by September most employees would be required to work at least three days per week at the company’s corporate campus in Cupertino. “Video conference calling has narrowed the distance between us, to be sure,” Cook said, “but there are things it simply cannot replicate.” Cook may have been inspired by Google, which had announced a few weeks earlier that it was planning for more than sixty per cent of its workforce to be active in the office starting in the early fall. Wells Fargo, headquartered north of Apple and Google, in downtown San Francisco, also made a spring announcement that employees would begin returning to the office in September.
From a public-health perspective, these plans made sense. On the 1st of June, the seven-day average of national COVID cases had fallen from a January peak of around two hundred and fifty-nine thousand to around seventeen thousand, and vaccines had become widely available. But then cases began to rise again. By August 1st, the national seven-day average of coronavirus cases grew to almost eighty thousand, and companies began to postpone fall openings. As the summer wound down, Apple announced that its employees wouldn’t be required to work at the office until January at the earliest. Google extended its remote-work program until at least January 10th. Wells Fargo originally announced that it would delay its reopening only until October, then November, before finally also landing on the New Year as its current target.
It’s understandable that Cook may have felt trepidation about throwing open the doors of Apple’s twelve-thousand-person headquarters when CNN was featuring footage of crowded I.C.U.s, but the vagueness surrounding these delay decisions was surprising. The new reopening dates that companies like Apple are setting are clearly meant to be provisional, but their announcements do not provide additional details about what specific metrics they’re monitoring and what numbers they would need to see for the new opening plans to stick. An e-mail from Sundar Pichai, the C.E.O. of Google, simply read, “We will enable countries and locations to make determinations on when to end voluntary work-from-home based on local conditions.”
Given the stakes, in terms of both health and logistics, employees deserve to know more about what goals employers are trying to achieve with their office-closure policies and what metrics they are using to guide their thinking. Right now, too many workers are waiting around for executives to pronounce ex nihilo, like the groundhog seeking its shadow, whether offices are safe or need to stay closed for another six weeks. Even the apparent generosity of being given thirty days’ notice of a return to the office is insufficient if, for example, you moved closer to family during the pandemic and now must decide when to move back, or if the end of remote flexibility requires you to arrange after-school care. And it’s not just employees who are hurt by this unpredictability. A recent SFGate story quoted Leilani Mason, the owner of a bar in San Francisco’s SoMa district which serves employees from nearby tech companies. Mason said that she spent thirty thousand dollars to open at the end of July. “Then offices pushed back their reopening plans,” she said. “We have no customers at happy hours, and we’re having our staff come in but there’s no one for them to serve.”
These office-opening delays are not, of course, the first time during this pandemic that we’ve lacked clear guidelines about when to resume activities. In April, the infectious-disease specialist Monica Gandhi co-authored an essay in the Washington Post that attempted to define what metrics would allow for the safe lifting of mitigation strategies. Gandhi and the other authors of the piece—Syra Madad, an epidemiologist who helped lead New York City’s COVID response, and Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health—proposed a metric based on hospitalizations: when the number of patients hospitalized with COVID fell comfortably below the number of patients hospitalized with flu at the peak of an average season, there would no longer be a public-health rationale to maintain strict disease-suppressing efforts.
As Gandhi explained, the primary motivation for this clarity is psychological. “The back-and-forth is very frustrating for people,” she told the Agence France-Presse. She later tweeted, “Metric based restrictions allow endpoint to be in sight for those who would like relief & feeling of more normalcy.” Gandhi has become a leading proponent of an “off-ramp” approach to public-health interventions. To better understand what this strategy would look like for offices, I called Gandhi, who, in addition to her new role as a public-health commentator, practices medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, near where Apple, Google, and Wells Fargo happen to be based.
Gandhi mentioned three possible options for reasonable measures that can guide when still-closed offices should reopen. The first was the per-capita-hospitalization threshold originally proposed in her essay for the Post. “We came up with five hospitalizations per hundred thousand people,” she said. “But, now that we have better treatments, it should be seven to ten per hundred thousand.” The second option was the local transmission rate. In July, when the C.D.C. reintroduced recommendations for indoor mask mandates, the agency tied its suggestions to a four-point scale determined by the sum of newly reported cases over the previous seven days. If a region scores in the first two categories, labelled “low” and “moderate,” then indoor mask mandates for vaccinated individuals are not recommended. Gandhi suggested that, once a region approaches the moderate threshold, it should certainly be safe to gather a highly vaccinated workforce indoors at an office.
Her final option was bolder: the Denmark model. In September, Denmark cited the country’s high vaccination rate as justification for dropping nearly all remaining COVID restrictions, allowing, notably, offices and schools to operate with pre-pandemic normalcy. “The epidemic is under control,” Magnus Heunicke, the Danish Minister for Health, explained. Denmark’s goal is not to eliminate the spread of the coronavirus but instead to treat it as endemic, meaning that it is expected to continue to spread but, owing to high population immunity, not tax the health-care system. As Gandhi explained to me, this is also the inevitable end point of our own pandemic: “Even the United States will have to accept endemicity.” We don’t have high enough immunity everywhere to make this a reasonable national policy right now, but, in regions that have already achieved high vaccination levels, Gandhi thinks that it would be safe to open offices.
Interestingly, San Francisco arguably meets all three of Gandhi’s proposed reopening metrics. The city’s health department currently lists fifty-four COVID patients in its hospitals, which is below her hospitalization-rate threshold of seven to ten patients per hundred thousand residents. At the same time, the city’s new case numbers have fallen significantly since August and are approaching the C.D.C.’s moderate threshold. Finally, San Francisco can boast an admirable vaccination rate: seventy-five per cent of residents are fully vaccinated. This is better than the seventy-one-per-cent mark at which Denmark announced the shift to an endemic-disease-management policy. “What would Apple be like right now if they were open and there were no masks but everyone was vaccinated?” Gandhi speculated. “Not much would happen.”
The main point here, however, is not to argue that offices in San Francisco, or in any other particular region, should already be open. There are other completely reasonable metrics that would support continued closure. Perhaps, for example, a company would want to see transmission remain in the C.D.C.’s moderate level for at least two weeks before changing its policy. It also might make sense to mix public-health metrics with other concerns. A company might specify a set of metrics that indicate when it’s safe to open, and then note that, although the region in which it operates currently satisfies those metrics, the company is still going to wait until January to reopen offices, to give people time to adjust. And some companies might make remote-work options permanent for reasons that have nothing to do with public health. The key is not the specific outcome of these decisions but instead the clarity about how they’re being made.
The Return-to-Office Quandary