Here's what some local leaders think as the ban on in-office work is lifted after being in place for more than a year.
Until management at Bill Brown Ford gets word from the state, the plexiglass is staying up.
That's the word from David Tashman, general manager at the automobile dealership in Livonia. He said there's been plenty of discussions surrounding making changes to the way the offices and other areas of the dealership can possibly operate, but he said until word comes from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration allowing for changes, he's not taking any chances.
"They haven't come down and they're not going to come down yet," he said. "Everything's going to stay up until we get further guidelines."
There's still plenty up in the air when it comes to returning to work in the office. Many office workers who have worked remotely since March 2020 may have their first chance at setting foot in their workplace beginning Monday, the first day the state will allow for in-person work for jobs that could be done remotely.
That milestone comes two weeks after Michigan's COVID-19 vaccination rate for people 16 and older hit 55% as a part of the "MI Vacc to Normal" plan to increase activity as more in the state are immunized against the virus. The state hit 55% of the eligible population vaccinated with at least one dose May 10, kicking the office work benchmark into effect two weeks later. Originally, the ban on in-person working was set to expire in April but was extended through October.
Returning to work, according to some area chamber of commerce presidents, is something that's long overdue. Many have called for the state to relax restrictions and allow businesses to make the decision on what to do when it comes to in-person working.
Joe Bauman, president of the Birmingham Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce, said many of the workers in the businesses he talks to still have plenty of workers doing their jobs remotely.
"I would say it's our experience that the majority of what you would call traditional office workers are still not working in the office," he said. "People are anxious and eager to go back to work."
Bauman was one of the leaders behind the group Reopen Michigan Safely, which launched earlier this year and aimed to end the in-person working ban in the state. Comprised of local chamber of commerce and industrial groups, it aimed at lobbying the state to end the ban, which, Bauman said, is affecting not just the workers in the offices but the surrounding areas.
He cited the scene in downtown Birmingham over the last year and the changing landscapes; with less workers downtown, other businesses are also seeing the effect, including restaurants, dry cleaners and more. Combine that with a lack of events — several spring activities such as the Birmingham Village Fair were canceled again this year — and it spells trouble for smaller businesses.
"The major national chains, they can absorb a bad year," Bauman said. "The sole proprietor, they can't afford that."
It's widely expected the office work culture may have been permanently altered after more than a year of employees working from their home offices or kitchen tables. Many larger companies, including local automakers Ford Motor Co., and General Motors Co., have already announced mindset changes in how white-collar workers do their jobs moving forward. Many others, including some in the region, are still crafting their working plans. The State of Michigan has announced it intends to bring employees back to offices beginning July 12.
Dan West, president of the Livonia Chamber of Commerce, said it's difficult this early on to determine what impact the work-from-home culture could have on offices in the western Wayne County community, which has plenty. Could the region see more consolidation? Could offices return to what they were before 2020?
West said it's too early to gauge.
"Some will downsize. Some will stay put," he said. "It's really hard to see a trend."
Other benchmarks as a part of the "MI Vacc to Normal" come at higher levels of vaccination, though some of those goals are murky ever since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory regarding vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks in nearly all settings. Just one day after those guidelines came down, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a change in policy that allows for fully-vaccinated individuals to ditch the masks either indoors or outdoors, though private businesses still can require masks for customers or staff.
Tashman said he's heard from many visiting the dealership and service center at 32222 Plymouth Road asking if some of the restrictions, including the removal of masks and plexiglass barriers, can be lifted. But until those changes come from the state, he said he's not interested in any liability issues for the dealership.
"We have a lot of customers who are wanting to come in here without their masks," he said. "There's got to be guidelines. MIOSHA is giving our guidelines we're going to follow.
"I don't want any liability."
Steps the dealership has taken the last year, Tashman said, have paid off: they've seen less than half-a-dozen employees come down with COVID-19, all of whom have recovered.
West, a proponent of working in-person, said while there's benefits to working remotely, few things can replace the brainstorming and camaraderie of working side-by-side.
"They have to at least see each other in person at times," he said. "Zoom meetings do what they do. But in my opinion, nothing replaces face-to-face interaction."
Contact reporter David Veselenak at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-678-6728. Follow him on Twitter @davidveselenak.