The light at the end of the tunnel is finally within reach, yet how do we actually grasp it? COVID-19 is the central issue for every business and the steps to normalcy are still shrouded in mystery. Vaccinations across the U.S. have continued to increase even with the pause of the J&J version. Some states have lifted or completely removed mask, distancing, and occupancy restrictions; however, many retailers and restaurants are still requiring them. Location seems to be the main issue with determining how the pandemic is progressing and how close we are to the end. Some areas are faring well and operating in an almost normal fashion, while others have seen surges and are returning to lockdowns measures from a year ago. It will take a concerted effort to cross the finish line even if we don’t all reach it at the same time.

Multi-store chains have long had to deal with separate rules and regulations for each state, however the COVID-19 pandemic has ratcheted these into another gear. The impact of the virus has been uneven across the U.S. and local government responses have been equally so. We have seen some states ease restrictions with positive results while others have had setbacks that resulted in renewed constraints.  Retailers and restaurants must grapple with this changing landscape while still trying to operate their business. When COVID-19 first hit, many businesses acted as if everyone was an equal risk with policies that tried to keep everyone safe. Digital ordering, curbside pick-up, and senior shopping times were just some of these measures. Circumstances have changed and the immunity levels of customers could be significantly different. A company has no real way of knowing if a customer has natural immunity through infection, a vaccination, or neither. Those customers who have some sort of immunity are likely to desire less strict protocols and it has put companies in a bind as they attempt to please everyone. Vaccine passports have been suggested as a solution and places like New York have already instituted a version of them. However, the idea has gotten pushback and been banned in some states. There are also logistical concerns such as partnering with third party providers and the lack of a national vaccine registry.

Every business owner and customer is hoping for a return to normal, yet that path does not appear to be a straight line. It will be a wonderful day when employees and customers can walk into a store without a mask and without being concerned about whom around them has COVID-19. That day will come, however there are several challenges yet to navigate. Businesses will have to decide which COVID-19 era changes to keep. We already know that online ordering and smaller store formats are here to stay, though what about masks and plexiglass barriers? Some people will always wear a face covering and other distancing measures like barriers at cashier stations could remain. Many companies will return to their offices, while others will find profit in remote work. There is flexibility in a return to business, although it is unclear when the feeling of “requirement” will be removed from these activities. Many people want that return to everyday life now, even though moving too quickly could yield negative results. However, we must begin shifting there eventually. Infection rates, vaccination levels, and customers and employees feeling safe are all factors for when the move should happen. The real challenge for businesses is that there isn’t a hard line on any of those aspects that constitutes normal.

The vaccine rollout was initially a slog before turning into a well-oiled machine and we could see the return to normal play out in a similar fashion. Businesses and consumers will play the largest role in deciding when that happens, although the government will also have a say. Local governments will update health and safety measures as they have done throughout the pandemic while also facilitating vaccine rollout. The federal government has also stepped in with relief packages and President Biden recently announced a tax credit for businesses that provide paid time off for employee vaccinations. Next week we will examine the President’s first one-hundred days in office and how he has helped businesses fight the pandemic. America is on the cusp of getting back to business, we just have to choose the right moment to take that last step.