Nearly 18 months after the auto industry was forced to launch a lengthy shutdown of North American manufacturing operations, carmakers have been slowly, cautiously easing up on pandemic restrictions. But with the new Delta variant causing a sudden surge in COVID-19 infections, the industry is suddenly facing the need to tighten up again.
With the CDC urging Americans to start wearing masks again indoors, some manufacturers have upgraded their own mask mandates. Others are reconsidering plans to bring workers back after having them work at home since early spring 2020, TheDetroitBureau.com has confirmed.
“It’s a reality we’re dealing with the most recent news of COVID,” said Chris Reynolds, the chief administration officer for Toyota Motor North America. “Like everyone, we thought things were starting to turn for the better but the Delta variant, you know, is really affecting everyone, Toyota included.”
A recent visit by TheDetroitBureau.com to Toyota’s sprawling Plano, Texas headquarters found it to be a modern ghost town, with “the vast majority of its normal workforce operating from home,” chief spokesperson Scott Vazin said by text.
Change in directives may mean change in directions
The automaker had slowly been easing restrictions. Those reporting to the HQ complex no longer have to fill out questionnaires or go through temperature checks. And those vaccinated no longer need wear masks indoors – though even vaccinated visitors still must mask up.
Reynolds said the Japanese automaker is studying various changes that will likely slow down return to work plans – which had been aimed at having 50% of headquarters workers in the office by early September. Managers at individual parts and assembly plants and other remote operations, meanwhile, will have the flexibility to renew mask requirements.
Toyota isn’t alone.
On Wednesday, “We informed employees that, effective immediately, MBUSA will require all employees and contractors to wear an approved mask while indoors at all company facilities nationwide,” said Rob Moran, the head of U.S. public relations. “This revised requirement,” he added, “is independent of vaccination status and location.”
While it hasn’t gone quite so far, General Motors “reinstated our mask mandate at our Wentzville (Missouri) assembly plant last week,” spokesman Dan Flores wrote in an e-mail. “That decision was made after our GM Medical team recommended it based upon local infection rates.”
While no other operations have been impacted, Flores said the medical unit is “reviewing the latest CDC guidance and determining how it might impact our current COVID-19 safety protocols.”
GM is one of the automotive manufacturers who coordinate their pandemic response through a COVID-19 Task Force. It approved the lifting of mask mandates for fully vaccinated employees early in July — though they can still wear a mask if they choose. As part of that group, Stellantis is “continu(ing) to monitor data carefully and has said all along that we will make any adjustments necessary to protect the health and safety of employees,” senior spokesperson Shawn Morgan said in an e-mail.
Auto industry task force reviewing new recommendations
The industry’s COVID-19 Task Force is planning to meet in the next week or two to discuss the changing situation, several officials told TheDetroitBureau.com.
Automakers have slowly begun bringing white-collar employees back to their desks and workstations, though Ford and GM earlier this year announced flexible programs that left it up to managers to decide whether staff could continue to work from home or find some other alternative, such as splitting up the week, part of the time coming in and part of the time continuing to stay home.
The rise of the Delta variant threatens to force automakers to tear up their plans.
“At our corporate headquarters in California, we have temporarily delayed the next phase of our return to office plan,” said Michele Tinson, a spokesperson for Hyundai Motor America’s Midwest and East Coast regions. “At all of our facilities, we continue to closely monitor case counts, regulations, and guidelines to determine the right approach to keep our employees safe and healthy.”
A number of automakers, including Hyundai, have made access to the various vaccines at worksites. So far, none have mandated getting vaccinated. But, on background, sources at several companies said that could be an option if the latest surge of COVID infections continues accelerating.
Vaccination requirements for workers
The closest any company has yet come is Ford which “will now require U.S. employees to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 prior to any international business travel due to the potential of increased exposure to COVID-19. Ford continues to strongly encourage all team members who are medically able to be vaccinated,” spokesperson Kelli Felker told TheDetroitBureau.com.
The auto industry was hit hard during the early days of the pandemic. Scores of workers were infected, many requiring hospitalization, and more than a few succumbing to COVID by the time factories and offices were closed in March 2020. Manufacturers raced to come up with protocols to keep manufacturing sites safe once plants began reopening in late May and into June.
Those protocols had been quite successful, according to officials from around the industry. But, as the Delta variant has spread and mask and social distancing efforts have been relaxed in many parts of the country, infection rates have been accelerating. Automakers are determined to prevent a repeat of what happened 18 months ago, with new plant closures a major concern.
“We’ve always told our teammates the virus runs the show here,” said Toyota’s Reynolds. The challenge, he stressed, is coming up with ways to keep COVID from winning.