Interior headquarters starts reopening

By Michael Doyle, Heather Richards | 06/24/2020 01:13 PM EDT

Interior Department employees returning to headquarters this week will see some differences in their old haunts.

Interior Department headquarters in Washington.

Interior Department headquarters in Washington. Francis Chung/E&E News

Interior Department employees returning to headquarters this week will see some differences in their old haunts.

Even before they arrive, a new memo advises, they’re supposed to use a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention self-checker to see whether they should first seek medical care.

Once inside the Main Interior Building, they’ll notice signs at entrances and throughout the building to remind them of CDC guidance or announce a room’s maximum occupancy. They’ll be encouraged to wear masks when social distancing cannot be maintained.


Some seating areas and office furniture will have been rearranged to provide for social distancing, and communal areas will be undergoing additional sanitizing.

"I know that many of you, like me, never envisioned we would be confronted by a pandemic that would so fundamentally shift how we work, how we connect with friends and family, and how we go about our daily lives," Deputy Interior Secretary Katharine MacGregor wrote in a memo sent yesterday.

MacGregor’s memo marked the start of "Phase 2" reopening for Interior’s National Capital Region, an area that encompasses department headquarters as well as separate quarters for the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service, among others.

The new phase is an important step, but it may not be a fast one.

Inside the Interior headquarters building, the Bison Bistro will remain closed until the building’s daily occupancy reaches 1,000 people per day. That is "not expected to occur until a few weeks after Phase 2 commences," a memo notes.

The start of reopening comes almost exactly three month after the COVID-19 pandemic drove Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to direct any of Interior’s 70,000 employees "not performing or supporting mission essential functions or performing mission critical functions" to telework (Greenwire, March 23).

"It is important to remember that supervisors should maximize telework flexibilities for workers who self-certify as individuals that the CDC has identified as being at higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19," MacGregor noted.

MacGregor has been overseeing Interior’s day-to-day pandemic response.

Telework continues

The new instructions from D.C. are just beginning to play out at lower levels.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees the leasing of offshore oil, gas and wind, is following Interior’s Phase 2 plan for the D.C. area in which employees will be encouraged to work from home "whenever possible to achieve business operations," BOEM spokeswoman Tracey Moriarty said yesterday.

Regional offices, which include ones in New Orleans; Anchorage, Alaska; and Camarillo, Calif., are following state and local orders in those locations, in accordance with White House guidelines, she said.

"The health, safety, and well-being of the public and employees are our top priority," Moriarty said in an email today. "BOEM’s leadership is constantly reviewing the latest information in order to make the most informed decisions regarding the best way to keep employees safe while continuing to carry out the mission."

BOEM has had two employees test positive for the virus. Both have recovered, Moriarty said. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement also had several people in the Gulf of Mexico region test positive for the virus in the early days of the pandemic (E&E News PM, March 31).

When asked for overall numbers, Interior spokesman Conner Swanson said in April that "the Department is tracking all reported positive employee cases of COVID-19 to ensure proper public health actions are being taken, and employees and the public are informed when there is a possible risk of exposure in accordance with CDC guidance" (Greenwire, April 14).

BSEE has regional offices in Houston, New Orleans, Anchorage and Camarillo, in addition to its Washington headquarters. The primary oil and gas regulator for offshore operations, BSEE is also following the new Phase 2 plan for the capital area.

"We are following state and local guidance related to telework," spokesman Sandy Day said. "Currently, we have employees reporting to the workplace on both a part-time and full-time basis. Many of our employees continue to telework."

Interior’s Phase 2 reopening policy directs supervisors to "work with employees who share offices to ensure that no more than one person is present in that space on a given day if having more than one person present would preclude maintaining social distance of 6 feet."

While Interior’s main building gym will be open, its post office, gift store and hair salon will remain closed until Phase 3. A snack bar will be open but limited to four patrons at a time, and a child care center will remain closed.

Interior employees with child care or dependent care responsibilities affected by COVID-19 can still get up to 20 hours of excused absence per pay period until schools reopen physical facilities.