In New York City, once the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, leading corporations in banking, the arts and other industries are starting an experiment with potential life-or-death consequences: bringing employees back to the office.
Encouraged by the falling number of infections around the city, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase have started summoning workers back to the Wall Street firms' physical locations. The auction house Sotheby's and The Museum of Modern Art have also asked their employees to return.
Companies' interest in resuming business as usual may be understandable, but it alarms some experts.
"Especially right now, heading into fall, which is when all of us expect the true second wave to hit — and it's respiratory virus season — this, of all the times to reopen, is not the time," said Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at Rhode Island Hospital and associate professor at Brown University.
Despite such concerns, workers across various departments at Sotheby's this week returned to the company's 10-story office in Manhattan for the first time since the pandemic struck, according to one person at the auction firm who asked to remain anonymous because employees are not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
Sotheby's managers are asking employees to report to the office a few times per week, according to the employee. A company representative declined to comment.
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COVID-19 under control — for now
The weekly number of reported new cases of COVID-19 in New York City has dropped to 1,565, according to local public health data, down sharply from the 33,000 weekly cases in the during the height of the pandemic. Across the state, the infection rate is now below 1%, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said this week, while adding that New Yorkers must remain vigilant.
Still, recalling employees back to offices carries risks for employers. For example, JPMorgan's move to start reopening its Manhattan office ran into problems this week when a number of securities traders were sent home after others workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Another bank where employees are returning, Goldman Sachs, also sent some traders home after at least one employee became infected, according to Bloomberg.
That setback doesn't appear to be halting other companies' plans, however. A Citigroup spokesperson told CBS MoneyWatch that the banking giant is aiming to ramp up attendance at its offices in the tri-state area. Citi wants to ramp up the employee occupancy rate at its offices in the New York City area from a meager 5% to 30% by October 5.
Given the ongoing risks from COVID-19, most companies are inviting — not ordering — employees to return. Citigroup is surveying workers to gauge their interest in coming back to the office. Those who say they're not ready are asked to explain why so that Citi can factor their responses into the bank's coronavirus policies.
For example, if a significant share of its workforce expresses concern over taking public transportation, Citi might consider providing shuttle services to offices, the spokesperson said.
Numerous factors affect whether employees can safely return to work, most notably the rate of coronavirus cases where a given office is located. Some epidemiologists see no problem with a small number of workers going back provided they undergo regular testing, wear masks and are able to maintain proper social distance from their colleagues.
"It depends on the nature of your work. If you can come back to the office, be socially distant. Wear a mask, make sure there is testing in place and the workplace isn't at full capacity where it's shoulder-to-shoulder," said Dr. Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist at the NYU School of Global Public Health.
Risks outweigh benefits?
Ompad herself has resumed working from her office, saying there are fewer distractions than when working from home. And she is fortunate in that her office is on a floor occupied by just two other people, while her job entails working with other health experts who are as vigilant as she is about staying safe.
Still, Ompad acknowledges she is taking a calculated risk. "Just because you can doesn't mean you should. And not all companies necessarily need to open. There should be a really good reason to bring people back in," she said Megan Ranney of Rhode Island Hospital is more blunt in discouraging offices from reopening too early, particularly when workers can work remotely.
"There may be some economic benefit to having some people come back to the office, but the benefits are outweighed in most situations by the risk to community of transmission," she said. "To do it universally is so short-sighted from a public health perspective."
First published on September 18, 2020 / 7:45 AM
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