Even after it closed, Hal Redlus, marketing consultant at Top 40 distributor Brown & Bigelow (asi/148500), hasn’t stopped going to the office.

Redlus, who’s based in Sacramento, CA, knows some folks who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and he’s relieved that they’ve recovered. His father is around that high-risk age bracket, so he worries about him and his father’s wife.

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At the same time, the economy has come to a screeching halt, 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment as of mid-May, and the promotional products industry has suffered greatly.

The Office After Quarantine - Part 2

So Redlus washes his hands and wears a mask around other people, but he refuses to let fear prevent him from earning a living. "The longer we stay home, the longer it will take to recover economically, if at all," Redlus says. "I’m not putting ‘money concerns’ over the value of human life, but I do question the numbers I see, and I also question the current response of leadership. People get sick, life has risks and there is no sense waiting for what might happen while we watch what is happening decimate our lives."

Meanwhile, in Marco Island, FL, Linda Bicking has been managing Palm Printing’s (asi/302031) shop from home since April 1. For 15 months, she has been battling two types of cancer. She had surgery before the COVID-19 crisis struck and has since been taking daily medication. With her weakened immune system, the island’s stay-at-home order was a relief.

But now it’s reopening. "I’m frightened for my life," Bicking says. "The entitled rich haven’t been social distancing or wearing masks. It concerns me that the local population is so cavalier with the health of their fellow residents, never mind themselves. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that a person they breathe on may get sick from an invisible virus that they may carry." Bicking says she’s grateful to work for a printing company that allows her to work from home, where she quotes and writes orders, sets up designs and then sends to the production team and then sends them to the production team.

"People get sick, life has risks and there is no sense waiting for what might happen while we watch what is happening decimate our lives."Hal Redlus, Brown & Bigelow

The perspectives of Redlus and Bicking represent a pronounced ideological divide in America that has emerged and widened as government-mandated shutdowns stretch on. According to national polling, the majority of Americans still support stay-at-home restrictions. But as evidenced by the growing number of protests and demonstrations, there’s a vocal contingent of people who oppose the shutdowns, question the severity of the pandemic and are eager to ramp up business.

And now that many states are gradually reopening and paving the way for employees to potentially return to the office, it’s being met with a range of reactions from people in the promo industry – from those who have grave concerns for their safety to those who have been ready to return for weeks.

Georgia resident David Best, account executive at Top 40 distributor American Solutions for Business (asi/120075), has seen restrictions being lifted without major issues. "The media has blown this thing out of proportion – it’s no worse than the flu," Best says. "The recovery rate is in the high 90% with those being affected the most are those past working age. I’m not saying don’t be cautious, and if distancing makes you feel better, then go ahead, but there is no reason we can’t get this country up and running again. The government needs to allow it and stop trying to hand everyone cash."

Others are prioritizing their health when the idea of returning is broached. "There is nothing they could do right now that would make me feel comfortable about going back," says Shawn Frick, account manager at Fayetteville, AR-based Creative Awards Inc. "We are a small office and when one gets sick, we all get sick."

"There is nothing they could do right now that would make me feel comfortable about going back."Shawn Frick, Creative Awards Inc.

Business leaders are also worried about returning to the office too soon. Bruce Weiser, owner of New York City-based Spire Printing & Packaging (asi/332401), plans to have his team continue working remotely for another couple months. "Commuting to our office is concerning as I would need to take the subway or bus, which I am not going to do for a while," Weiser says. "I can possibly walk to work from my apartment, but that is about 30-45 minutes. That may be the preferred method as long as it’s not too crowded on the sidewalks."

Demands for Safety Measures

Workplace experts recommend that companies allow employees to come back once they feel comfortable. Reopened businesses that demand employees to come back, particularly against the employee’s will, face an added layer of legal complexity.

Workers who fear contracting COVID-19 cannot legally refuse to come to work. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (or OSH Act) does allow employees to refuse work if there’s an imminent danger or their employer is not taking responsible steps to ensure a safe working environment. Those steps include having the office cleaned regularly, promoting social distancing and ensuring people who have tested positive for COVID-19 don't come to the office. For people like Bicking, there’s still a chance that she wouldn’t have to return to the shop due to her current health situation. Guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says employers must find ways to mitigate the risk for people with underlying conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Not surprisingly, many industry members have a list of arrangements they’d prefer before returning to the office, such as their employer hiring a professional cleaning crew to disinfect every nook and cranny, placing social distancing stickers on the floor to measure 6 feet apart, reconfiguring open office floor plans and providing masks, gloves and hand sanitizer upon entry of the building.

"No more putting packages and documents on my chair or desk – I want them in a box of some sort away from my workspace," says Wendy Kirsch, sales consultant at Southfield, MI-based Sales Marketing Group (asi/317085). "I also want someone to clean all common surfaces like the microwave, coffee maker, faucets, doorknobs, refrigerator door, bathroom doors and stall locks."

The Office After Quarantine - Part 2

There’s also concern about other employees following strict protocols. Daily sanitation is a huge concern for Kristen Moser, project manager at Lakeland, FL-based Car Candy. "People get busy and don’t remember to sanitize," she says, "or just one or two people end up being accountable for cleaning efforts while others act like nothing has transpired and don’t take proper steps to help out the common wellbeing." The EEOC does allow companies to require employees to wear PPE, and can send employees home who don’t follow the requirements.

There’s no denying that the pandemic has changed how America does business. With so many people forced to work from home over the past few months, perhaps the office isn’t as important as we’ve been led to believe. Ellen Molletti, sales executive at Top 40 distributor Brown & Bigelow, has been working from home for three years. Aside from vendor meetings and checking in with colleagues a few times a month, she loves the commute from bed to computer.

"The office concept is going to be a thing of the past," Molletti says. "Clients seem to prefer doing business via email and Zoom, anyway. Instead of that overhead expense, maybe more companies can use that money to increase their employees’ paychecks or invest in self-promotion. Either way, that could be a blessing for our industry."