When the US Supreme Court blocked Biden’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large, private employers last week, it didn’t come as a surprise to many legal experts watching the case. Conservatives who opposed the rule had politicized the topic, and today’s Supreme Court has become disappointingly predictable when deliberating cases charged with partisan politics.

What was surprising about the Supreme Court’s ruling was the lead-up to it: Throughout court proceedings this month, one of the justices didn’t wear a mask, even as the Omicron variant raged in DC.

Reports are conflicting about whether Chief Justice John Roberts actually requested that everyone mask up (NPR says yes, a Fox news commentator says no), but either way, Justice Neil Gorsuch was not wearing a mask when he attended the court. And Sonia Sotomayor—not Gorsuch—has been working remotely, putting her on unequal footing, as the odd one out.

Critics saw Gorsuch’s unmasked face as a violation of basic decency in the workplace (or anywhere for that matter) made worse by his assigned seat directly next to Sotomayor’s on the bench.

But this isn’t just any workplace. Supreme Court justices are essentially colleagues for life. No doubt, the two will be sitting next to one another for many years to come.

What companies should know about mask mandates

In response to media attention, Sotomayor and Gorsuch issued a joint statement Jan. 19 saying they were surprised by accounts that Sotomayor had asked Gorsuch to wear a mask. “While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends,” they said, without clarifying whether Sotomayor was teleworking because Gorsuch was not masked.

Beyond the court, however, the debate it inspired raises questions that companies will have to face when—and if—they bring employees back to the office. Regardless of local masking regulations or vaccination guidelines, there will always be workers who are more vulnerable to covid than others. And there will always be employees who feel the rules don’t apply to them.

Company leaders and managers will have to determine who will be accommodated and who will not. Those decisions may well inform who’ll get to stick around and who will be sent home. They could also put employees in the position of making their own decisions about where and how they should work.

Hakan Ozcelik, a professor of management at the Sacramento State College of Business, says the worst thing a company can do is leave employees in limbo to navigate interpersonal debates about masks or vaccination. In fact, his research during the covid pandemic suggests that company mandates around health and safety are interpreted by employees as a cue about how much a company cares about its people, so the policies ought to be well-considered and thorough.

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