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How Silicon Valley is returning to work with a mask non-mandate

Some large tech companies are returning to the office with masks, vaccinated or not, while others are holding off a return altogether after local officials strongly suggested wearing masks due to the Delta variant of COVID-19

Silicon Valley is slowly starting to bring workers back to the office.

MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto

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As Silicon Valley and the rest of the nation begin the slow journey back toward a semblance of pre-pandemic life, ever-shifting health and safety protocols in California and beyond have created starkly different rules in offices as employees begin to trickle back.

Corporations must strike a balance between lingering COVID-19 concerns with their business plans and their workers’ desire for normalcy, as the Delta variant spreads and changes the direction of the pandemic. The latest local guidance provides a little wiggle room: Eight San Francisco Bay Area counties on Friday recommended mask-wearing indoors regardless of vaccination status as a precautionary measure amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, but stayed just short of a mandate.

The starkest decisions so far have come from the two companies whose employees have been the most vocal about misgivings in returning to their cavernous campuses. Apple Inc. AAPL, +1.20% has reportedly decided to push back a return to the office for its workers. Those employees won’t return to the office until at least October, according to a Bloomberg News report citing sources that published Tuesday. The iPhone maker is expected to give a month’s notice before telling its workers when they need to return, the sources said.

Apple did not respond to email seeking comment.

Google parent Alphabet Inc. GOOGL, +3.58% GOOG, +3.37% is “strongly encouraging” all returning employees to “wear a mask inside Google property at all times, regardless of vaccination status, until further notice.” The email message late Sunday, reviewed by MarketWatch, comes a week after the company welcomed back employees on a voluntary basis to its California offices, including its Mountain View headquarters. The voluntary return is a test run before a full return in September. Google had no further comment when contacted.

Such are the dilemmas facing companies that must calculate business interests with the well-being of their employees. In the cases of Apple and Google, both have enormous real estate holdings that have gone largely unused for more than 17 months. Those contacted by MarketWatch said they were complying with Cal-OSHA guidelines, which seemingly change by the week, adding to the anxiety of a bewildered workforce and management.

The public health department for Santa Clara County — the Bay Area county home to Google and Apple — deferred MarketWatch’s questions to Santa Clara County Public Health. The county, in turn, said it has “provided public guidance to all residents and employers within our community on use of face coverings, available here https://covid19.sccgov.org/news-releases/pr-07-16-2021-bay-area-counties-recommend-masking-indoors-for-everyone.  We will continue to issue guidance and recommendations to employers in our community, as we have done throughout the pandemic.”

Against ever-changing rules and the uncertainty of some vaccination reliability amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, tech companies — among the largest employers in the San Francisco Bay Area — are navigating as best they can.

At Facebook Inc. FB, +5.30%, only employees who choose to provide proof that they are fully vaccinated will be eligible to opt-out of mask-wearing in offices, according to a spokeswoman. However, all employees have the option to continue wearing masks regardless of vaccination status. 

Twitter Inc. TWTR, +3.05% is not changing its mask policy in San Francisco for now. The company is requiring proof of vaccination for employees who wish to return to the office. “While masks are not required, Tweeps are more than welcome to continue wearing one in the office,” a company spokesman told MarketWatch.

Similarly, Adobe Inc. ADBE, +0.35% said fully vaccinated employees may voluntarily return to the company’s San Jose, Calif., office. “We will continue to monitor local conditions and guidance from the government and health experts to further assess our reopening plans in the Bay Area,” an Adobe spokeswoman told MarketWatch. 

For now, Twilio Inc. TWLO, +1.07% has “soft opened” Bay Area offices in Mountain View and San Francisco that do not require vaccinated employees to wear masks, a company spokeswoman said.

ServiceNow Inc. NOW, +1.64% is following Cal-OSHA guidelines, which require unvaccinated employees to wear masks in the workplace and vaccinated employees to self-attest their vaccination status if they want to forgo wearing masks.

Of course, the easiest solution may be the work-at-home model — something that many startups are embracing. Coefficient, a Bay Area-based software-as-a-service company that connects spreadsheets to corporate systems internally at Uber Technologies Inc. UBER, Workday Inc. WDAY and Spotify Technology SPOT , has taken the path of least resistance: All of its dozen employees work remotely. It has no office.

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