The decision to return to her downtown Minneapolis office was not easy for Karen Loheit.

With the pandemic's mounting infections, "I was very, very hesitant to come back to the office," said the accounts payable specialist. "I need to stay healthy."

Loheit cares for elderly parents, and one of her daughters has diabetes, which increases her risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Another daughter works in a hospital.

When she learned her employer, Delta Dental of Minnesota, had adopted safety protocols, she was relieved.

When she arrives at work at her second-floor office, she passes through an automated temperature and face-scanning station that reminds her to "wear a mask." Delta brought in portable air filters, installed automatic doors that open with the wave of an ID badge or hand, and installed 180 workstations encased in 6-foot-tall plexiglass.

"Now working here makes me feel safe," said Loheit, one of only three employees currently working on the entire floor.

Creating that feeling of safety is job one for Minnesota employers hoping to woo back thousands of virus-leery staffers after months of working from home. It's been slow going. To date only one in 10 workers in Minneapolis and St. Paul office towers have returned to the office hub. Most businesses expect more to follow sometime next year. (For Target's downtown headquarters, that won't be until June.)

In the meantime, getting ready for the return of workers has businesses scurrying for new cleaning protocols, separated seating, touchless bathrooms and sophisticated virus-capturing air filters.

Commercial tenants inside office venues such as the IDS Center, City Center/33 S. Sixth St. tower, Capella Tower and the SPS Tower in Minneapolis — each home to more than 2,000 workers — are laboring to keep people distanced from one another in elevators, cubicles and conference rooms and adopting motion sensors and software so workers can keep germs to themselves and stagger their attendance.

Employers' COVID-19 precautions range from the innovative and costly to the cheap — think floor stickers reminding workers to distance — or the banished office coffee pot and communal bowl of M&Ms.

The efforts suggest that reports of the death of the American office may be premature. Many businesses "had this notion that we can do [remote work] forever," said Jim Montez, Minnesota leasing vice president at Transwestern. "But increasingly, what I'm hearing from business leaders is 'We can't do that forever because I am losing the bond that I have with my team. I am losing the culture [and] the brand identity of my enterprise. To maintain that, we need our people back together.' "

The stakes are high. Getting workers back in the office also is critical to commercial buildings that rely on tenants.

Nearly 14,000 businesses in multitenant offices pay $1.23 billion in rent each month across the Twin Cities metro area, according to Colliers International research. Keeping that income flowing is the lifeblood of landlords, who are joining the effort to make workers feel safer returning to the office.

The 33-story SPS Tower in downtown Minneapolis was about to replace its elevators when the pandemic hit, prompting managers to kick things up a notch by also installing card-activated cabs so tenants don't have to touch buttons. The tower is also changing its front doors to open with motion sensors, Montez said.

At the Oakview Office Building just off Hwy. 169 in Eden Prairie, 12 rooftop heating and air systems are being upgraded with ionization air purification machines.

Bob Janssen, a senior project manager with Kraus-Anderson Construction, said many of his customers tackle coronavirus upgrades while their offices are doing other renovations. For him, that's when Delta Dental called.

Its local space and staffing needs doubled in January after it brought a number of outsourced services in-house. Now, it has 180 employees working remotely, most of whom are not expected back downtown until July.

"We are trying to be as safe as possible and taking it to the next level to make sure everyone is protected," Delta Dental product and business development director Sean Sutter said while checking on renovations during a recent tour of the newly expanded space. In the new reception screening area, Sutter checked his temperature, took an automated health survey and waved his badge by a scanner to open one of the six new automatic doors.

Automatic door openers can cost $5,000 a pop and are more common in skyways or airports than interior offices. But with COVID, much is changing, Sutter and Janssen said, noting rows of workstations newly encircled by tall plexiglass.

"We are putting those [plexi-panels] all over the place," Janssen said. "Before COVID, we were never in this kind of demand." Now plexiglass is so hard to get, there are delays, he said, noting scores of other desks around the corner with no protective barriers.

Determined to proceed where possible, Delta bought nine portable air purifiers for the office and plans to buy more as the ranks of returning workers grow, Sutter said.

Indoor air quality has emerged as a big concern for employers worried about virus spread. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned for the first time in September that human respiratory droplets can remain airborne and spread the coronavirus though sneezes, coughs, laughter and even talking. The warning drove the IDS Center in Minneapolis to run its air exchange system 20 hours a day, up from 13.

The air concern also catapulted Buhl Investors into action. The developer was knee-deep converting a former 1883 railroad warehouse and soap factory into offices overlooking the Pillsbury's Best Flour sign on St. Anthony Main in Minneapolis when the pandemic hit.

To prevent virus transmission at the newly renamed Switch House, "We looked at lots of [air cleaning] options including UV light and MERV filters and bipolar ionization. For us? We thought the needlepoint bipolar ionization system was the best option," said Buhl Principal Peter Deanovic.

The rooftop system, which can cost $2,000 to $10,000 depending on options, electrically charges ions in the air that cling to viruses, allergens, mold and other particles, rendering them inert.

"Think of it as a hospital-grade air filter connected to your air conditioning and heating" system, leasing agent and CBRE Vice President Ann Rinde said while pointing overhead to the Switch House's gleaming aluminum air exchangers and ducts snaking across exposed wooden rafters. "It wasn't something that was initially considered. But now, we've had a lot of positive response from [prospective] tenants when they ask 'What is this building doing to respond to COVID-19?' "

Thanks to a different COVID-19 inspired technology across downtown in the North Loop, Chicago-based technology consulting firm West Monroe is finally ready for its Minneapolis workers to move into new offices inside the 10-story Nordic building.

But before arriving, workers must first use software to schedule their shift. Failure to do so alerts management. That's because only 48 of 120 employees can be in the 42,000-square-foot office at one time, said Tom Ewers, West Monroe managing director in Minneapolis.

Scheduling work shifts online helps assign workers a floor, track capacity and ensure social distancing. Ewers added that the new option can offer workers a break from remote-work disruptions such as spouses or children also working at home.

West Monroe's second- and third-floor offices boast 40 phone and meeting rooms, so "everyone will have their own space and real estate" and can socially distance.

Even with the pandemic, "We're still committed to the office," Ewers said. "We're trying not to overcorrect. I am a believer in 'this too shall pass.' "

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725