EPA headquarters and the agency's New England office are taking another step forward on reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an internal email obtained by E&E News that EPA's National Capital Region offices and Region 1, based in Boston, will move into phase 2 of the reopening process Tuesday. Other smaller EPA offices will also enter that phase of reopening, Wheeler said.
Wheeler said EPA had seen "some progress" in data trends and other information the agency has reviewed. That progress is the impetus for taking another step in reopening, he said.
"Our goal is to ensure that the decisions we make to return to work are based upon the best data available and the guidance that state and local public health agencies are providing," Wheeler said in his email sent to EPA employees this morning. "At this point, I am confident that we should move into Phase 2."
The EPA administrator noted the capital region and Region 1 had been in phase 1 of the plan for 39 days because the agency didn't want to move too quickly.
Wheeler also said several smaller EPA offices are moving forward on their reopening plans.
The following agency facilities will be moving to phase 2: Traverse City, Mich.; Duluth, Minn.; Narragansett, R.I.; New Haven, Conn.; Helena, Mont.; Buffalo, Albany and Syracuse, N.Y.; Wheeling, W.Va.; and Middleburg Heights and Westlake, Ohio, he said in his email.
In addition, the Cincinnati and Ann Arbor, Mich., facilities will be moving to phase 1.
Finally, the Portland, Corvallis and Newport, Ore.; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; and Pierre, S.D., facilities for EPA will be moving into the seven-day shutdown period.
Wheeler said reopening plans entail "a balancing act," considering criteria data and decisions being made by state and local officials.
"Despite cities and states moving forward in their phases — on to Phase 2 or 3 several weeks back — we remain cautious and deliberate in our moves forward. I now believe our analysis supports the above locations moving forward," Wheeler said.
Working from home is still allowed for EPA employees during this next phase of the reopening process.
"As a reminder for the locations moving into Phase 2, employees are expected to return to normal work schedules (except for those who continue to have dependent care issues), and telework is at the option of the employee but you should notify your supervisor if you choose to telework," Wheeler said in his email.
Wheeler also reminded EPA employees if they choose to come to the office to review the agency's self-assessment questionnaire for COVID-19 and not enter an agency building if they answered yes to any of its questions.
EPA unions have protested the agency's move to reopen during the pandemic. They say staff members have been teleworking effectively and should not risk exposure to the virus on their commute or in the office.
Gary Morton, president of American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents about 7,500 EPA employees, was frustrated by EPA moving forward on its reopening plans.
"It is disgraceful for Andrew Wheeler to use dedicated EPA employees as guinea pigs for political purposes," Morton told E&E News. "Mr. Wheeler, just following orders has never been a morally acceptable excuse or defense for not protecting human lives."
Some of the areas named in Wheeler's email have recently sought more restrictions to stop the spread of the virus.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser has issued a tough mask order and extended the city's state of emergency to October. She also announced yesterday that D.C. public schools will have an all-virtual start this year.
EPA spokesman James Hewitt told E&E News, "As Administrator Wheeler indicates in his email, the option of teleworking rests with employees during Phase 2. All EPA facilities are evaluated weekly using data from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and other expert sources. This data is also reviewed by EPA scientific experts.
"These reviews, along with consideration of the status of the state and local reopenings, informs each decision. Any reopening will be phased in a measured and deliberate approach and transparent with all employees through our new dashboard service," Hewitt added.
EPA employees are keeping watch on the reopening process. Its next step, phase 3, is when most staff will be expected to return to the office, although supplemental guidance allows for additional telework during that part of the process as well (Greenwire, July 17).
Phase 3 will be another change for staff, according to an EPA headquarters employee who said they weren't shocked by the move forward on reopening announced today.
"Not surprising, but we have been instructed to continue to telework through phase 2, so not much has changed. The real complication will be phase 3 when we have to deal with school, child care and other services," said the employee.
"The career managers don't seem to be in any hurry to get employees back in the office."