Walmart isn’t the first employer trying to push people back to work when they may still be infectious. The CEO of Delta Airlines had called on the CDC to shorten the isolation period to five days, and when the agency did so, Delta quickly embraced the change. New York City is also urging teachers back on the job even with mild symptoms—though they’re told to isolate themselves outside of those six hours a day in a room with potentially dozens of people.
Many public health experts sharply criticized the CDC’s five-day guideline for omitting a requirement that people test to be sure they’re no longer likely to spread virus before going back out in public.
Sadly, the Biden administration may be less crass about it, but like the Trump administration, it is treating the pandemic very much as a labor market problem these days. With the rise of omicron, that means that a top priority is finding ways to keep people working despite virus levels higher than at any previous time in the pandemic. Trump didn’t care if people died. Biden does—but he figures that if they’re vaccinated, they won’t die, and that’s about as far as he’s willing to go, at least given the strong forces (translation: capitalism) pushing him to privilege employers over workers.
COVID-19 is now so widespread that the only way for businesses and schools and fire departments and other public services to stay open is to change the rules for how soon people can work after testing positive, and then to tell them they must work that soon. Meanwhile, highly paid workers at investment banks and law firms are told not to come back to the office yet out of a concern for safety.
That concern for safety is all too lacking when it comes to lower-paid workers, including the very same ones deemed “essential” in the beginning (though that designation, too, was a way to pressure them to stay in dangerous workplaces). Again and again, the pandemic has highlighted—and reinforced—our society’s existing hierarchies, with the people at the bottom expected and pressured to risk their health while those at the top are protected. It’s horrifying to see the ostensibly science-based CDC effectively writing that into federal public health policy.