Mask mandates are falling. Should HR be ready to bring them back?

Editor’s note: After publication, a federal ruling voided the transportation mask mandate.

Fewer companies than ever currently have mask mandates in the workplace—but employers should be prepared to put face-covering requirements back in play if COVID-19 cases continue to increase.

New research from consulting firm Willis Towers Watson finds that the vast majority (83%) of employers that had mask mandates earlier in the pandemic either discontinued them or plan to do so this year. Only one in seven employers (14%) plan to keep their mask mandates in place until 2023 or later.

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“At the point where the CDC is saying much of the country is at low risk, it makes sense that many employers that have mask mandates in place will remove them,” says Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, population health leader at Willis Towers Watson. However, most medical and healthcare facilities still require, and should require, employees to wear masks, he says.

Most mask mandates were dropped in the past couple of months as Omicron cases drastically fell after they surged to a pandemic all-time high around the holidays. But with the BA2 variant—which now accounts for the vast majority of COVID-19 cases and is causing numbers to rise in many places around the nation—some signs point to masks making another comeback.

The city of Philadelphia, for one, reinstated its indoor mask mandate. Starting April 18, masks will be required in all indoor public spaces, including schools and childcare settings, businesses, restaurants and government buildings.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also last week extended the federal transportation mask requirement for two weeks; however, a federal ruling on Monday struck down the mandate and the TSA said it will no longer enforce masks.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that employers will reinstate mask mandates for employees, as well, especially if cases continue to rise. The BA2 variant also is highly transmissible. Unlike other mitigation strategies—like vaccine mandates, which take months to implement and enforce, for instance—enforcing mask requirements is easy and quick. So is ramping up testing options, which can substantially minimize spread.

“I think that mask mandates are a really good, flexible available tool for when the risk of community transmission is high,” Levin-Scherz says. “Masks are very effective at lowering person-to-person transmission.”

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As with most things from the pandemic, employers would be wise to be flexible and adaptable in their mask and testing strategies and to tell employees that policies are subject to change, Levin-Scherz says. “It’s good to set an expectation [with workers] that, ‘We’ve looked at the situation right now, and there’s no requirement to wear a mask, but we’re going to keep on monitoring the situation. We really care about everybody’s safety, and if the situation changes and cases go up, masks might come back.’ ”

Vaccine mandates, though, are a different story. Employers that have COVID-19 vaccination requirements in place are more or less holding steady in enforcing them. But unlike mask mandates, it’s less likely that more will implement new vaccine requirements, even if cases rise again.

More than one in three employers (38%) require employee vaccination, according to the Willis Towers Watson data. Just 5% will discontinue the mandate this year, while 33% will keep the mandate in place. One in 10 previously required vaccinations but have now dropped the requirement. Dropping vaccine requirements was likely the result of the Supreme Court’s January ruling that blocked the Biden administration’s vaccine and testing mandate for businesses.

Related: 7 takeaways from the Supreme Court vaccine mandate ruling

Generally, employers should continue their efforts to keep employees safe amid the pandemic, experts say. Recent research from Qualtrics finds that employer health and safety efforts are especially important to employees, and even potential employees. In fact, according to the firm’s survey of more than 1,500 full-time U.S. employees, 71% say health and safety are top concerns when deciding where to work, with the spread of COVID-19 ranking as employees’ top reason for worrying.

Levin-Scherz says the country is better equipped to treat patients with COVID-19, and some immunity because of vaccination and previous infections is helping—which is a positive step. That means that going forward, employers will not be discussing safety measures as much as they have in the past two years, he says. “But this is not something that employers can ignore at this point, either.”

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.