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Some Baltimore businesses cancel fall plans to bring workers back to offices, others reassessing as COVID numbers rise

Joe White was disappointed when the companywide email arrived. But he wasn’t surprised.

Baltimore Gas & Electric informed employees it would no longer allow those vaccinated against COVID-19 to take off their masks when working indoors but outside their homes, following the city of Baltimore’s reinstated indoor mask mandate. And the natural gas and electricity utility is reconsidering its plans to bring more remote workers back to offices amid another wave of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations attributed to the more contagious delta variant.

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White, 51, has worked at BGE for 30 years. He has embraced the benefits of working from home in Laurel, like more time spent with his wife, Tiah, and J.J., their 9-year-old son. The utility training center manager doesn’t mind further delaying his full-time return to the office; his disappointment stems from “where we’re headed with the pandemic.”

“If it’s done out of caution and they want employees to be safe, that’s what I want as well,” he said.

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With nearly 60% of Marylanders vaccinated against COVID, many employers eyed Labor Day, when students will be back in classrooms, as a logical time to begin returning to the office. That was before the state began reporting hundreds of new cases per day and the number of hospitalized patients more than tripled.

Joe White, a utility training center manger for BGE, takes a break from remote work in his home office in Laurel to answer a question from his 9-year-old son, J.J.
Joe White, a utility training center manger for BGE, takes a break from remote work in his home office in Laurel to answer a question from his 9-year-old son, J.J. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The resurgent pandemic and the city’s reinstated indoor masking order, which took effect Monday, set off a flurry of corporate activity, with managers revising their expectations about when and how remote employees might return to the office. Now, some employers have put plans on pause, others are forging ahead, and more still are keeping their options open as they monitor the spread of the delta variant.

The outcome of their decisions will particularly affect Baltimore’s downtown, which brimmed with tourists and city workers before the pandemic emptied much of the city center. The lack of workers and visitors decimated demand for lunchtime haunts, after-work watering holes and many of the area’s shops and services establishments.

Many Baltimore workplaces are committed to safely bringing employees back to the office, “but the schedule for returning is being adjusted on a month-to-month basis,” said Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership, which promotes downtown and counts 650 businesses as members.

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“The Downtown Partnership has been collaborating with the health department and business leaders to educate and create vaccination incentives for employees to help mitigate the spread of the virus,” Stokes said.

The majority of cases and hospitalizations have been among people who are not vaccinated, state health officials say. However, experts have raised concern about so-called breakthrough cases, in which vaccinated people can be infected and transmit the virus.

“The increased number of cases, and the number of unvaccinated people who are contracting [COVID-19] and being hospitalized, has made businesses just take a pause and reflect on where things are right now, and maybe where they’ll be in three to four weeks,” said Don Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional organization representing more than 500 businesses.

“People are reassessing,” Fry said.

BGE emailed its roughly 3,100 Baltimore-area employees Aug. 6, informing them of the city’s just-announced plan to reinstate the mask order and its implications for their workplaces, said Aaron Koos, BGE’s vice president of communications. The roughly 40% who are working remotely had planned to return in three phases, with the first 100 coming back after Labor Day, another group 60 days later, and the rest at the beginning of next year.

That’s on hold, for now.

“We are reevaluating that schedule,” Koos said. “It looks like we’re going to be in a remote environment for a while longer, and it’s not looking positive for accelerating that, given the numbers.”

“This is extremely disappointing to see numbers going in the wrong direction,” he added. “The best way to get back to normal, or as normal as we can get, is to get people vaccinated and have people comply with the masking requirements. We’re trying to do our part to encourage employees and customers.”

Baltimore-based sports apparel maker Under Armour delayed its corporate employees’ planned mid-September return to the office until early 2022, “in order to continue to protect the health and safety of teammates and their families,” the company announced in an Aug. 3 news release. It employs about 2,400 people in the area.

When corporate employees do return to offices in Locust Point, Port Covington and other workplaces in the U.S. and Canada, vaccinations are required. Retail workers are not required to be vaccinated, but must continue to wear masks, the company said.

The Johns Hopkins University, the Baltimore region’s largest private-sector employer, is not adjusting its plans to bring back its more than 27,000 workers in the fall, university leaders wrote in an campus email Aug. 6.

All students, faculty and staff must provide documentation showing they have been vaccinated (there was an Aug. 1 deadline to apply for an exception).

As public health conditions vary, “we expect that periods of masking or other restrictions (e.g., on eating together indoors) will be a fact of life for the near future,” Executive Vice Provost Stephen Gange, Chief Risk Officer Jon Links and Chief Administration Officer Jane Schlegel wrote in the email.

But, the university leaders said, “we do not anticipate the need for public health precautions as extensive as those we instituted last year.”

“Our plans for broad resumption of in-person academic, research, and extracurricular activities, as well as staff return plans, are unchanged, and we look forward to being together again in the coming weeks,” the university officials wrote.

T. Rowe Price, the Baltimore-based investment firm, had set a Sept. 13 target for its approximately 1,700 employees to return to their East Pratt Street offices.

But the company is continuing to review guidelines and developments from national and local government and health authorities as it decides when to go back, T. Rowe Price spokesperson Robert Matthews said.

“We plan to take the next few weeks to consider all the factors that may influence our current return-to-office plans,” Matthews said.

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M&T Bank’s branches remained open throughout the pandemic, and the bank’s offices have reopened, welcoming remote employees back on a voluntary basis, said spokesman Scott Graham.

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M&T is not requiring its workforce to be vaccinated, but “strongly encourages employees who haven’t already been vaccinated to do so,” Graham said. Full-time workers are offered up to eight hours of personal time to get the shots, he said.

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield is monitoring local health and safety guidelines, metrics and recommendations before bringing its 2,485 Baltimore-area employees to the office in large numbers.

For now, vaccinated employees at the regional health insurer can reserve drop-in workspaces and conference rooms “designed to adhere to social distancing guidelines at designated CareFirst locations,” said spokeswoman Rebecca Hollamon. Wearing masks is required.

“Until it is safe, CareFirst will focus efforts on creating a new and better normal for our workforce and workplace of the future,” Hollamon said.

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