This time, they’re hopeful they can stay open and operating.

In the short term, many big employers have delayed plans to reopen their offices in January. Some universities and schools in the U.S. have switched, temporarily, to remote instruction. Professional sports leagues have canceled games. Governments in Europe and Asia are imposing travel restrictions. And major events in January, such as the annual gathering of world leaders and chief executives in Davos, Switzerland, are being put off.

Still, the leaders at many of these organizations say they have learned much about the coronavirus and that with vaccines available, their goal is to find ways in 2022 to make life more normal. They realize the world won’t quickly return to pre-Covid routines, but they also don’t want a repeat of 2020 and 2021—when many businesses closed, offices were empty and schools went remote.

“It really hit home to me how easy it is to unknowingly spread this horrible disease, and how easy it is to defend against it,” Gary Kelly, chief executive officer of Southwest Airlines Co. , said in a message to staff on Monday. Days earlier he had disclosed testing positive for Covid, despite being triple vaccinated and testing negative when he traveled to testify before Congress.

“If you’re unvaccinated, you’re just at risk,” he said. “If you’re vaccinated with a booster, your risk is vastly reduced. Yes, I got the infection, but I had very mild symptoms.”

How governments and especially local schools respond to the latest surge could upend plans set by business leaders. While parts of Europe have recently reimposed pandemic-related restrictions, U.S. officials say they have no plans to institute the types of school closures and business lockdowns that marked the first wave of the pandemic.

“Are we going back to March 2020?” President Biden said Tuesday in an address about the Omicron variant. “That is what I keep getting asked. The answer is absolutely no.”

Mr. Biden said more than 200 million Americans are vaccinated against Covid, providing protection from severe illness, and schools have learned that they don’t need to shut because of Covid-19 cases. “We can keep our K-to-12 schools open, that is exactly what we should be doing,” he said.

How consumers behave will shape the next wave of the pandemic. About a third of the U.S. population isn’t vaccinated, and there is general fatigue with social distancing and safety protocols, which could extend the Omicron surge. At the same time, Americans who stay home or curb their spending could damp the economic recovery.

Daily reported Covid-19 cases in the U.S.

Note: For all 50 states and D.C., U.S. territories and cruises. Last updated
Source: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering

In recent days, executives at large companies have come to Neal Mills, chief medical officer at insurance broker and consulting firm Aon PLC, with questions about the Omicron variant and its impact on workplaces. Some employers asked whether they should curtail all business travel for January, or cancel client events or employee welcome-back gatherings planned for the new year.

“Employers are having a difficult time envisioning a return to normal in January,” said Dr. Mills. “The question is: Do we scrap it all, or do we go with something far more flexible, instead of a mandatory everybody’s coming back to work?”

Dr. Mills has told clients that the latest surge in cases is expected to peak in the third week of January. Companies that have already mandated shots or have nearly 100% vaccinated employees will have the most predictable path, he said. A vaccinated workforce “gives you a known in a sea of unknowns,” he said.

Office buildings on Sixth Avenue in New York in November.

Photo: Amir Hamja/Bloomberg News

Perceptions of remote work have shifted as the pandemic has gone on. It helped many companies power through the first waves and allowed white-collar workers to be productive from their homes. Now, many executives fear that the longer remote work lasts, the greater toll it can take on company culture, with new hires and existing staffers feeling disconnected without face-to-face interaction.

Many leaders said they are closely watching the fate of the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates, which have been challenged in courts and could reach the Supreme Court next week. Several large employers, including General Electric Co. and Boeing Co. , recently said they wouldn’t enforce mandates that were set to take effect Jan. 4.

In his message to Southwest staff Monday, Mr. Kelly said he would also postpone enforcing the mandate but urged those who were unvaccinated to get the shots, including a booster. Southwest said 93% of the airline’s staff are vaccinated or have been granted accommodation.

Rethinking office returns

Mattel Inc.’s pandemic task force watched as Covid cases climbed after Thanksgiving in places such as Los Angeles County and the U.K. and decided the company’s reopening plans should wait. Some January return dates would stretch through the end of the first quarter. For other locations, the group would wait until February to reassess the situation.

“We are giving ourselves the month of January to come through the break, see what we learned, what case counts are and adjust accordingly,” said Amy Thompson, Mattel’s chief people officer.

The maker of Barbie dolls and Fisher-Price toys has a couple of hundred essential workers at its main offices in El Segundo, Calif. It has required all employees to be vaccinated at work, where they must wear masks and social distance.

The company plans to have a virtual presence at a major toy expo in Nuremberg, Germany, in early February, but executives currently plan to attend a New York show later that month in person.

The toy maker hopes to return workers to offices at some point in the first quarter, Ms. Thompson said, based on case counts, vaccination levels and local public-health advisories. “I don’t think anyone has a crystal ball,” she said.

Highland Consulting Associates Inc., an investment consultant in Cleveland, is leaving it to employees to determine their comfort level with returning to the office as Covid cases rise. The 29-person firm went remote in March 2020, then shifted to a hybrid approach this summer.

Highland is likely to continue to operate virtually or with some sort of hybrid arrangement well into the first quarter, said Richard Veres, the company’s president. “What we have tried to do is give people enough freedom and enough direction,” while complying with federal, state and local guidance, he said.

“We can work remotely. We’ve done it,” Mr. Veres said. “We feel, with some roles and responsibilities, we can be more effective together, but we have to respond to what makes sense in terms of health and safety.”

President Biden outlined plans to expand Covid-19 testing sites, distribute a half-billion free at-home test kits and deploy emergency medical personnel to hospitals, as cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant surge in the U.S. Photo: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Some companies say there is value in reopening offices in January, even if the pandemic drags on and some workers choose to work from home. The industrial real-estate company Prologis Inc. expects to broadly reopen its San Francisco headquarters on Jan. 10, but the company continues to monitor local conditions and government guidance and could still make changes to its approach.

“My assumption has been that this thing is going to be with us in some shape or form for a while,” said Hamid Moghadam, co-founder and chief executive at Prologis. “At some point, you’ve got to officially put this behind you, even though there’s a long tail to this thing, and we don’t know how long a tail.”

The company has worked to make its offices as safe as possible, Mr. Moghadam said, and Prologis requires vaccinations for employees and visitors using the headquarters space. Employees who don’t feel comfortable working in person can make arrangements with their managers to keep doing their jobs remotely or on a hybrid basis, he said.

Like many, though, the CEO doesn’t expect Covid to soon disappear. “I personally think it’s going to be with us four years from now, five years from now, but we’re going to be talking about it in very different terms,” Mr. Moghadam said.

Horizon Therapeutics PLC, a biotechnology company with U.S. headquarters in Deerfield, Ill., is considering requiring a booster shot for most of its roughly 1,800 workers, said human resources chief Irina Konstantinovsky.

“We’re at the point now where we have to start thinking, what do we do about boosters?” she said, adding that she plans to send a message strongly encouraging staff to be boosted. The company required workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 15.

Horizon executives have told employees they expect them to spend the majority of their work days in the office, and they haven’t changed those expectations. “The best innovations and the best work happen when we interact together,” Ms. Konstantinovsky said.

Still, she expects to be in close touch with fellow executives to monitor the Omicron situation during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when Horizon offices are officially closed. “We don’t know where things are going to be a week from now,” she said.

Another test for schools

Many colleges and universities in December sent students home early to finish their studies or exams remotely. Now, schools are making plans to stay online through at least the middle of January and are preparing to enforce vaccine mandates. But schools are reluctant to close campuses for long stretches, since students were largely dissatisfied with virtual classes.

Harvard University said Saturday it would start the winter semester online for three weeks to reduce density on campus. Staff and students must be vaccinated by Jan. 18 or face disciplinary action.

Stanford University will also start the winter quarter online and is requiring students to get the Covid booster by the end of January. Classes are now scheduled to resume in person on Jan. 18, following the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Stanford University is starting classes in January online.

Photo: Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal

The University of California, Los Angeles said Tuesday that classes would go remote after the holiday break until Jan. 18. Pennsylvania State University and the University of Southern California are also considering an online start for next semester.

For younger students, some public school districts last week said they would hold classes remotely for the week before winter break. Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, the nation’s 20th-largest district with 132,000 students, said it would stay remote through Jan. 18, with elementary-aged students remote through Jan. 31.

Yet school leaders said they have learned a lot about the dire consequences of holding classes remotely and will be reluctant to close large numbers of in-person classes.

“We have evidence that when we’ve done that, we have hurt children, we have hurt their mental health, we’ve hurt their social and emotional well-being and we’ve hurt their academics in ways we are still trying to understand even today,” said Pedro Martinez, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools, on Tuesday.

More districts have employed test-to-stay, which employs frequent testing to keep students in class and out of home quarantine. The policy was endorsed last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About a dozen of the largest 100 school districts in the country have implemented the policy, said Bree Dusseault, a principal at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization based in Seattle that tracks school responses to Covid-19.

Two issues schools will face in January as they try to implement test-to-stay are training parents and getting enough test kits, Ms. Dusseault said.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect most districts to come back in January with a test-to-stay plan in place, but we will expect to see them rolling out more frequently next month,” she said.

Vaccines were administered in Pawtucket, R.I., earlier this month.

Photo: David Goldman/Associated Press

Less than half of the nation’s 100 largest districts require some or all staff to be vaccinated, though more districts are starting to mandate vaccines for teachers.

Detroit’s public school district this week mandated vaccination for all employees by Feb. 18. Currently, about 80% of employees are vaccinated, said district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson. “The district cannot consistently educate children with repeated disruption to teaching and learning,” Ms. Wilson wrote in an email.

Scott Goldstein, executive director of an education nonprofit in Washington and a father of two daughters, expects January to be his busiest work season in years, with new work coming in. His wife works as a teacher, so neither of them is able to watch their children for an entire day.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of fear of going back to virtual and things shutting down,” he said. “My wife and I are definitely starting to talk about what we would do.”

Mr. Goldstein said he would probably try to put his daughters, 3 and 5, into a learning pod with the neighbors’ children. Last year, the families rotated which house held school and hired a caretaker to supervise the kids while they learned virtually.

Small business struggles

“I’m tired of the uncertainty. That’s the biggest thing,” said Sandeep Thakrar, president of Neema Hospitality Inc., which operates a dozen hotels in the mid-Atlantic region.

Mr. Thakrar closed five of his hotels for two months during the 2020 Covid shutdown, but isn’t likely to do so again. “Unless the world stops, we are not closing any hotels,” he said. Closing hotels is extremely disruptive, Mr. Thakrar said, because laid-off employees must be rehired when the hotel reopens, and customers don’t know if the property is open or closed.

The current rise in U.S. cases is coming at a slow time for his properties, meaning a slowdown in travel is likely to be less disruptive than the 2020 shutdown, which came during the busy summer season.

Mr. Thakrar estimates that about 70% of his 150 employees are vaccinated. He has recommended employees get vaccinated but worries about losing the ones who aren’t if testing or vaccinations are required by the Biden administration’s mandates. “Either they would have to get vaccinated or get tested, or they would have to leave the company. I don’t want that third option to happen,” he said.

Japanese restaurant Bessou on Sunday in New York, after a brief closure after a possible Covid exposure.

Photo: Thalia Juarez for The Wall Street Journal

Up-and-down consumers

Stores in big U.S. cities and suburban malls were busy over the last weekend before Christmas, and a new Spider-Man movie played in sold-out theaters. But some consumers, especially in cold areas like the Northeast with rising case counts, pulled back from dining inside at restaurants.

At Boro6 Wine Bar in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., owner Paul Molakides surveyed a half-empty restaurant over the weekend after dozens of reservations were canceled. “They are dropping like flies,” he said on Saturday.

Earlier in December, he had been so confident about the dining industry’s return to normality that he signed a five-year lease on a new wine education space next door, and had ramped up spending on expensive wines and menu items to wow his customers during the holidays. Now, he isn’t sure how he will be able to financially make it through the month. “It’s like the wind getting knocked out of you,” he said.

Mr. Molakides dusted off a familiar routine from earlier in the pandemic. “I went downstairs, I got the heaters and I repaired them. I dragged the outdoor furniture back outside. I got out all the dusty old plexiglass dividers—I swear to God, I almost threw them out last spring,” he said.

He and his chef have already made plans to shift their menu back to more delivery-friendly items, and he plans to begin requiring proof of vaccination at the door. All that action made him at least feel slightly less powerless.

“It felt good. It’s like sandbagging, when you are getting ready for the flood,” he said.

Michele Lindsay, owner of a travel agency in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., said her business has been busy and consistent this year with bookings for clients extending through 2022 and even into 2023. “Despite the variant, I am seeing people who are still willing to travel,” she said.

Many of her travelers are fully vaccinated and are trying to figure out how to take the necessary precautions to make travel safe. Some are buying trip insurance for the first time. “They know the rules of engagement have changed,” she said.

Write to Chip Cutter at [email protected], Douglas Belkin at [email protected] and Ruth Simon at [email protected]

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