San Antonio’s largest employers are looking to local health professionals and public officials to guide their transitions as they navigate the process of reopening corporate offices under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order to restart the Texas economy.

Companies such as USAA, Frost Bank, and H-E-B have remained open during the pandemic as essential businesses, but much of their corporate staffs have been working remotely during stay-at-home orders. In light of Abbott’s order, these corporations and others are evaluating ways to bring employees back into corporate spaces and debating whether now is the time to do so.

Some businesses are heading into the May 1 reopen date with the intention of phasing employees back into their corporate office spaces. Others have created transition teams to determine the safest way to reconvene, while some companies have no formal plans and are in no hurry to get employees back in one space.

“We aren’t sure there is a getting back to normal – there will be a new normal for everybody,” said Dya Campos, H-E-B’s director of governmental and public affairs. “[The coronavirus pandemic] is in the top-most devastating things to ever happen to our state, our economy, our people.”

While H-E-B stores expanded their hours this week and have been adapting throughout the pandemic, figuring out the corporate side has been more of a challenge, Campos said. The Texas grocery chain employs more than 20,000 locally and continues to hire throughout the state, she said.

Operating under social distancing requires a lot of training, Campos said. She added while H-E-B’s corporate employees have learned a lot about how to work from home, transitioning back into the office setting will be another learning process.

“It’s too early to tell what kind of behaviors will need to persist,” Campos said. “Likely social distancing, likely masks or facial coverings are in our foreseeable future.”

Countries hit earlier by COVID-19 are just emerging from isolation, so the long-term effects of the pandemic are still unknown, she said.

While Frost banks also continued to operate during the shutdowns, they were limited to online, drive-thru, and over-the-phone services – its lobbies having closed in March, said Bill Day, senior vice president of corporate communications.

Frost has formed a task force with more than a dozen representatives from its various departments to evaluate how to transition to a “business-as-usual level,” Day said.

“We haven’t finalized any plans yet for reopening our locations or bringing employees back to centralized locations,” he said. “We expect that it will be a gradual and measured transition. We expect to follow public health guidelines to protect our customers and employees.”

Since shutdown measures went into effect, more than two-thirds of Frost’s 4,600 employees have been working from home, with zero employees furloughed or laid off, Day said. The company has remained busy and has been able to help more than 10,000 small businesses secure $3 billion in funding through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, he added.

USAA’s Communications Director Matt Hartwig said USAA will follow guidance from public health experts and the company’s own medical team. Hartwig emphasized that “employee safety has always been a top priority and will drive our decisions on when and how employees return to the office.”

Its reopening timeline and procedures “will prioritize the safety of USAA employees and their families, as well as the community,” he added. USAA employs more than 19,000 in San Antonio and more than 35,000 people total, according to recent data from the company.

Local energy giants Valero Energy and NuStar Energy said they will be implementing phased plans to return employees to corporate offices.

While operations at its refineries have been ongoing throughout the pandemic, many of Valero’s San Antonio employees have been working from home, said Lillian Riojas, executive director of media relations at Valero.

Valero will follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and recommended practices while returning to the office, she added. The company’s phased-in approach will allow staff to keep an eye on how everyone is adjusting to the updated health measures, Riojas said.

“We are fortunate to have a large campus that lends itself to social distancing with limited shared workspaces, but where applicable, we are reconfiguring open spaces to facilitate social distancing,” she said.

Valero employees will have mandatory training on health and safety protocols before returning to work, and managers will require training on safety issues and enforcement, Riojas said.

The 1,600-plus San Antonio Valero employees also will receive a “safe return kit” that will include a nonsurgical mask or bandana, hand sanitizer, wipes, and more, she said. Valero employees will still be encouraged to follow social distancing practices, limit gatherings to no more than 10 people, utilize videoconferencing when applicable, and clean their work stations and supplies more often.

The campus fitness center will be closed, and sick employees will be asked to stay home, she said.

NuStar’s stepped plan will allow employees with school-age children to continue to work from home if they need to, as well as employees who might identify as high-risk, said Mary Rose Brown, executive vice president and chief administrative officer.

Other employees will consult their supervisors on when to come back to the office, but no one will be required to do so until they feel comfortable, she said.

“We are very happy to see Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to begin reopening the Texas economy,” Brown said. “While it is encouraging to see that many businesses will begin ramping up across the state in the coming days, we are not yet going back to ‘business as usual’ on Monday.”

Even when NuStar’s executives feel comfortable returning, there will likely be some new restrictions and protocols, such as wearing masks in common areas where social distancing is difficult, Brown said. NuStar employs approximately 550 local employees and more than 1,500 in total.

City Council will be briefed on City staff’s transition next week, but the City has not released any information on its plan.

Disclosure: H-E-B, Valero Energy, NuStar Energy, USAA, and Frost Bank are Rivard Report business members. For a full list of supporters, click here.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.