Portland's South Park Blocks are often a gathering place for people who work downtown. But this summer, the tree-lined blocks are largely empty, with many office workers still working from home.

Portland's South Park Blocks are often a gathering place for people who work downtown. But this summer, the tree-lined blocks are largely empty, with many office workers still working from home.

Hanin Najjar / OPB

The delta variant is disrupting companies’ return-to-office plans everywhere — including downtown Portland, where more office workers had been expected to return after Labor Day. Employers are now pushing back those plans — postponing, for the moment, the anticipated wider return of people who could help revitalize the city’s troubled core.

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“We have pushed out the formal reopening of our offices until October given the rapid spread of the Delta variant,” said Bob Speltz, a spokesperson for The Standard, in an email.

The Standard is a mainstay of downtown employment. It had planned to officially reopen its offices on Sept. 7 to any of its roughly 2,000 downtown employees who wanted to work on-site. Employees can still go in, but the grand reopening is paused.

“We will continue to monitor transmission of the virus and adjust plans accordingly,” Speltz wrote. “Our employees have been remarkably resilient and productive working remotely and we will also continue to allow that arrangement for many employees beyond October.”

Major tech companies such as Google, which has an office downtown, have also pushed back their return-to-work plans. An increasing number are also requiring vaccination for office workers. And the news changes by the day.

U.S. Bank has roughly 3,800 employees in the Portland market, many of them typically based downtown. The company had also planned to reopen on Sept. 7, requiring the “vast majority” of non-branch employees to begin working in their offices three days a week.

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Then the delta variant took off.

This week, U.S. Bank postponed its general reopening until at least October.

Other companies are still deciding whether to forge ahead or pause. For them, the delta variant is the latest challenge in a long process.

“It seems like dog years that we started this process of trying to get our return-to-office plans in place,” said Graciela Gomez Cowger, CEO of the law firm Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt and member of OPB’s board of directors. “It’s hard to plan when the ground is moving beneath you and there’s so much uncertainty and so many things that are unknown.”

Schwabe opened its offices after July 4 for people who “were clamoring to come back into office.” The firm, which has about 200 employees based at its downtown office, also pegged Sept. 7 as the date it would begin requiring on-site work at least two days a week.

That date hasn’t changed yet — but it could.

Schwabe is tracking COVID-19 data from the four states where it has offices. Gomez Cowger said the firm’s decision will be centered on the health and safety of employees.

At the same time, she thinks delays to reopening offices will affect downtown Portland’s recovery.

“And I’m not happy to see those delays, frankly. I wish we could move forward even more aggressively,” she said. “It’s going to take all of us to really effectuate a return to a dynamic city.”

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