The warnings were there that this could happen, but the news nonetheless has crept up quickly. And it comes just as many companies were forging ahead with reopening offices—and building momentum on a recovery.

In short, COVID outbreaks are returning at a disturbing rate, and especially in localities that appeared to have the pandemic under some level of control. Already, in New York—which gained fame for largely shutting down the virus—officials are considering rolling back pandemic reopening plans in almost two dozen zip codes around the state. That follows a pattern of “hot spots” occurring everywhere from Montana to Texas to Virginia. And in each case, corporate leaders must decide how to respond and protect workers’ health—while still hoping to rebuild a revenue base depleted by the pandemic’s arrival in the spring.

Without a doubt, the new hot spots add a layer of complexity for organizations already grappling with local regulations, social-distancing measures, contact-tracing guidelines, and other challenges tied to reopening offices. “You have to constantly reassess and be ready to shift and pivot as conditions change if you are in a hot spot,” says Brian Bloom, vice president of global benefits at Korn Ferry and co-chairman of the firm’s COVID-19 task force.

Leaders have to trust that employees will do the right thing for themselves and each other when it comes to wearing a mask, not taking part in large group activities, and other safety protocols. “There’s a heightened sense of risk, so safety, caution, and agility are the three keys to navigating hot spots,” Bloom says.

To be sure, Dan Kaplan, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Chief Human Resources Officers practice, says that organizations in outbreak areas should consider mandating employees to work from home even if their offices have reopened. Employees are already under unprecedented emotional and mental distress, Kaplan says, and the risks associated with commuting and working in close proximity to others in a hot spot could create further anxiety, disengagement, and a loss of productivity. “Companies need to remember that we are still in a pandemic, and the attitude should be that this is a marathon and not a sprint,” Kaplan says.

Ideally, organizations established an early-warning system as part of their crisis response plan during the first weeks of the pandemic, if not before. That warning system should identify actions to take if a hot spot emerges, says Peter McDermott, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs and Investor Relations practices. “Most companies should have a plan in place for future spikes and disruption to continue operations to the best of their ability,” McDermott says.

Experts say that internal communications and employee engagement become even more of a priority for businesses in hot spots. It’s also important for leaders to reinforce the organization’s purpose and commitment to employee health and safety through assistance programs, wellness offerings, and the like. “Continuous messaging around corporate values is important,” says McDermott. “But actions always speak louder than words.”

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