The day after Labor Day was when it seemed like many offices would reopen, kids would go back to school and things — kinda sorta — would return to so-called normal.
That idea vanished last week.
As coronavirus cases surged in some states to levels seen last winter and millions of Americans continued to forsake readily-available vaccines that ward it off, some employers postponed plans to return to offices, mask mandates reappeared in some places and debates raged about reinstating other preventative measures.
"We're feeling a lot more tentative about what the day after Labor Day [Sept. 7] is going to look like," Jonathan Weinhagen, CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Friday. "It feels like every couple of hours I'm hearing another company saying we're going to push this out a week, or a month, or for some, indefinitely."
On Friday, Target Corp., the largest employer in downtown Minneapolis with 8,500 workers, announced that its employees can work remotely the rest of the year. Its headquarters will still gradually reopen on Sept. 20, but those who show up to the office, at least initially, will only be able to use common areas such as meeting rooms and the cafeteria, not their individual desks or offices.
Earlier last week, U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo, with 12,000 employees between them in downtown Minneapolis, pushed their office-return dates back to October or later this fall.
Around the Twin Cities, top executives and human resources chiefs wrestled all week over how to adjust to quickly changing conditions and perceptions of risk.
"It was kind of a week-by-week type of play in what businesses and people were doing," said Carrie Patton, human resources director at Winthrop & Weinstine, a law firm in downtown Minneapolis that reopened its office July 5. "Now it feels like it's almost day-by-day."
One key concern for both employers and workers is how people would feel being back in a workplace when some have taken a vaccine and others haven't — and no one's status is precisely known. That's also made many parents anxious about being exposed to the virus at work and bringing it home to kids who may be too young to be vaccinated.
The current moment feels similar to the beginning of the pandemic when there was a lot of uncertainty about how bad it would get, Weinhagen said. He added that one big factor shaping employers' decisions is how confident workers feel about returning to the office.
"That's driving company decision-making more than the public health data," he said. "They want to create an environment where employees are not only safe from a public health standpoint, but feel safe. And if they're hearing from employees that there are concerns, they are going to make decisions based on that input."
That tension is playing out dramatically in one of Minnesota's most visible and scrutinized workplaces — the Minnesota Vikings. The NFL team's franchise quarterback, Kirk Cousins, missed five days of practices as a precaution when another player tested positive for COVID-19. That wouldn't have been necessary had Cousins been vaccinated, team leaders said.
The team's owner and head coach publicly have urged players to get vaccinated. "There are quite a few guys that are just against it," Mike Zimmer, the head coach, said last week. "I'm not going to be able to change their mind."
The NFL says teams will forfeit games this season if too many players come down sick or are benched as precautions against spreading the virus.
New recommendations by health authorities for people to wear face masks again in some situations are creating another mental hurdle for office workers.
"It's one thing to say I can go into the office [maskless] and sit and talk to someone in a conference room," said Jim Scannell, an executive at Travelers Cos. in St. Paul. "But now, if I have to wear a mask everywhere, it starts to defeat the purpose. Some people say, 'I can have just as good a conversation over Skype or Zoom.'"
Travelers recently delayed its work-return date by a month and now aims to have its 2,100 St. Paul employees back in the office by mid-October. But it's not setting a firm date because of uncertainty about the delta variant, Scannell said.
When it reopened its Eden Prairie campus to its 1,200 workers on July 6, Starkey Hearing Technologies told unvaccinated workers to wear masks in common areas. Last week, it broadened that to all workers and told unvaccinated employees to also wear masks at their desks.
The company hasn't mandated vaccines, but last week it offered $750 bonuses to workers who are vaccinated. Starkey provides a coronavirus vaccine at its on-site health clinic.
Greater Twin Cities United Way planned to reopen its downtown Minneapolis office on Sept. 13. That date will likely be pushed to November or even into 2022, John Wilgers, its chief executive, said Friday.
"Every day there is updated guidance," Wilgers said, with a nod to public health authorities. "That is just so fluid that we just might wait for it to get some more time."
The delayed return of workers to downtowns and suburban office centers presents another challenge for the small restaurants, convenience stores and owners of other businesses that serve such daytime crowds.
About 75% of restaurants and retailers are now open again in downtown Minneapolis as about one-third of downtown office workers have returned, said Steve Cramer, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council.
"The reignition of the downtown economy is occurring and it will continue to occur," he said. The delays by big employers "may just flatten out that curve a little bit. If so, that's disappointing, but we're in it for the long run."
On Friday morning, Mark Toth, owner of the Urban Wok in Lowertown St. Paul, met with his 15 workers to discuss COVID-19 vaccinations — and decided not to require them after a give-and-take he called "contentious."
The main reason: It's hard to find employees at restaurants these days and Toth has plans for five new locations in coming months. "It's one thing for the corporate jobs, but in the restaurant world, it would just create another barrier to finding someone to work for you," Toth said.
And in another sign of renewed anxiety about the coronavirus, the union representing about 13,000 workers at Minnesota grocery stores last week began campaigning to reinstate hazard pay that grocers offered early in the pandemic.
Wilgers of the United Way said he and many colleagues are eager to get back to in-person work. In a survey earlier this year by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, about 300 nonprofits listed retaining or recruiting employees amid burnout as one of their biggest challenges.
"In the early days of COVID, frankly that [remote work] was easy because we were all super driven by the work we had to do, the needs of our community," Wilgers said. "But that's become a little bit harder as time has gone on."
Staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this report.