Agency pauses reopening plans

By Kevin Bogardus | 11/19/2020 01:42 PM EST

EPA has paused the agency's reopening plans as coronavirus cases are increasing across the U.S.

EPA has paused the agency's reopening plans as coronavirus cases are increasing across the U.S. Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News (illustration); Francis Chung/E&E News (EPA photo); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (virus)

EPA is pausing reopening the agency as COVID-19 infections surge across the country.

EPA will keep its offices in their current phases of the agency’s reopening plan, Associate Deputy Administrator Doug Benevento said in an internal email obtained by E&E News. Several agency offices are in phase 2 of that plan, in which EPA staff can choose to go to the workplace but are still encouraged to work from home.

"In these unprecedented times, the Administrator and I have decided to pause the review of our facilities status and will keep all facilities in their current phase," Benevento said in the email sent to EPA employees this morning.

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Every week, EPA staff review COVID-19 data from the agency’s reopening status dashboard for more than 100 facilities. Then the decision to move an EPA office into another reopening phase is typically announced to staff in a Thursday or Friday email each week, which has caused anxiety among employees.

Those recent weekly reviews are now showing EPA offices are not ready to reopen further.

"The evaluation over the last few weeks has increasingly shown that state and local governments are revising their reopening status. In addition, this past week we did not see any of our facilities meet the gating criteria for a change in reopening status," Benevento said.

EPA’s next facility review will now be Dec. 17, four weeks from today.

In his email, Benevento acknowledged "a great sense of unease everywhere based on the upward trends of COVID-19 incidence."

"We take the responsibility of protecting our staff and those around us seriously and we believe this is the right decision at this time," Benevento said.

He added regardless of the current phase of EPA employees’ offices, the agency encourages staff to continue teleworking and "leveraging workplace flexibilities as needed."

Union officials at EPA have been pushing agency leadership to pause reopening or go back a phase because of the rise of COVID-19 cases.

"I’m pleased to see the agency take this step to slow down the reopening process. I’m still concerned that the data shows so clearly that we should be moving backward in our phases," Britta Copt, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3607, which represents EPA Region 8 employees, told E&E News. "It appears they are listening to the union, at least partially."

In the United States, there are now more than 11 million COVID-19 cases and 250,000 deaths from the virus. EPA employees have become infected, and at least one staffer died. In addition, the spread of the virus is also expected to grow during the holiday period.

EPA employees have been teleworking since March as the pandemic took hold in the United States. Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced plans in May to reopen the agency in a phased approach, but that has met resistance from staff and union officials worried over potential exposure to COVID-19 in the office or on their commute.

Asked about the agency’s decision to pause reopening, an EPA employee told E&E News, "It’s about time."

"It’s a relief that they seem to be slowly acknowledging reality. I wish they had done this months ago, but it is a start," the employee added, noting there is still no update on whether EPA will have any locations go back a phase or close entirely considering the jump in coronavirus infections.

Another EPA staffer said pausing reopening was "a good call by our leadership."

"Even with the election chaos, our leadership has been carefully monitoring COVID. I think it is a safe, smart move, especially with the holidays," said the staffer.

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