Federal Government Far Behind States and Localities in Social Distancing

Most federal workers are still packing themselves into offices.

President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, takes questions from the press at a coronavirus update briefing Saturday, March 14, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, takes questions from the press at a coronavirus update briefing Saturday, March 14, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

President Trump declared a national state of emergency Friday afternoon, lagging several states and localities. Schools and colleges across the country have been steadily closing for weeks. Some American cities have closed bars and ordered restaurants open for delivery and take-out only. But the Federal government, which should be leading, is far behind.

NYT (“Most federal workers will report to the office Monday — as the rest of the country isolates itself“):

Most of the nation’s 2.1 million federal employees will report to work Monday to tightly packed office cubicles and other workplaces where they serve the public, even as schools and colleges across the country have closed, businesses have sent their staffs home to work and governors have canceled public activities to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Top U.S. health officials are urging Americans to limit close contact with others, but the federal government appears to be hunkering down to limit disruption, creating widespread anxiety for employees who fear they are putting themselves and their families at risk.

Sunday night, in response to mounting criticism, the Trump administration urged agencies in the Washington area to “offer maximum telework flexibilities” to employees who are eligible for remote work.

The guidance followed a recommendation from the acting White House budget director Friday that limited telework to the elderly, pregnant or those with health risks. But Sunday’s directive was not mandatory, and it left out most of the government. Just 15 percent of the federal workforce is in the D.C. area.

There have been some major adaptations. The Defense Department, for which I work, has all but ended official travel and has barred its employees from international travel and greatly restricted domestic travel even on a personal basis.

But by leaving the decisions to individual agencies, we’re unnecessarily slowing the process and greatly endangering the public we ostensibly serve.

Most of the professional military education community has finally moved to distance learning, starting today in most cases. The holdouts, as best as I can tell, are the Army War College and Marine Corps University. I’m sure we’ll follow suit very soon but, again, every day we’re face-to-face we increase the risk of exposure and therefore risk the wellbeing of the elderly and other vulnerable populations, as well as placing additional strain on a fragile treatment infrastructure.

While frustrating, it’s hard to blame local leadership. Other than short-term shutdowns due to budget standoffs or severe weather, we have no real experience with distributed work on a mass basis. And every agency believes its work is vital.

As with so many things in this crisis, the problem goes to the very top. We’re far past the point where the President should have issued clear orders that made closure the norm, with face-to-face operation the exception that required approval.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Government, Health
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    Some of us cannot work remotely at all due to the security requirements of our work. Still, it would make sense to send those who can work remotely home, or to reduce to a skeleton crew so interpersonal contact is minimized.

    We all did get an e-mail yesterday basically saying “maximum flexibility,” etc. etc. but there’s been no specific guidance beyond that. I’m just trying to stay at least arm’s length from co-workers and washing my hands very frequently. We do have Clorox wipes available so I’ve been wiping down door handles and whatnot. Hopefully that keeps the spread to a minimum in my building.

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  2. Bill says:

    Anyone else think the photo James used says something about the federal government not taking social distancing seriously?

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  3. Kingdaddy says:

    Jesus, enough with the hats already.

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  4. Scott says:

    Yep, reported to work this morning. Kind of expecting a decision but no one knows anything. We’ve all be told to take laptops home to ensure they are properly configured for teleworking.

    My problem is that I have two college kids home who will probably be taking online classes. Also, my teacher wife is part of the group trying to figure out how to continue elementary school curriculum at her Title 1 school. Many of the kids do not have home internet access. Already the school nutrition services have set up curbside meals.

    I’m starting to worry about bandwidth at home.

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  5. mattbernius says:

    My wife is a federal clerk whose work really doesn’t require much face-to-face interaction at all. Plus she’s immuno-compromised. We keep waiting for the Courts to tell all nonessential people to work from home, but it hasn’t happened yet.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Kingdaddy: Hey, fair is fair. If you had his hair wouldn’t you wear a hat anytime you could?

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  7. gVOR08 says:

    I glanced at RedState yesterday. They had a column saying stupid journalists don’t understand the Constitution when they criticize the President*. He’s supposed to let governors take the lead because of Federalism. It’s followed by a bunch of comments to the effect of stupid libturds think the prez outta do something just because there’s a threat to the nation.

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  8. grumpy realist says:

    I’m supposed to pick up a new government job in the Washington DC area early May, but who knows what the situation will be by then?

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kingdaddy: He learned a trick and thinks if he just keeps doing it he’ll always win.

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  10. DrDaveT says:

    The best (by far) actual expert briefing on the current US situation and what people should be doing (and should have done) is this one by Michael Lin. I will also post in the Forum.

    Warning: Contains Facts

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  11. grumpy realist says:

    @DrDaveT: Thanks for posting that! I especially appreciated the instructions on how to disinfect and when.

    (Since I’m twiddling my fingers until my new job starts anyway, I think I’ll go study something useful, like Korean.)

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  12. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Andrew Cuomo is doing a much better job of being the President, than the President.

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  13. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Trump tells States to try and buy ventilators themselves.
    Our President is beyond worthless.
    The abject failure of this obese orange twit is worse than “Mission Accomplished” and “Helluva job, Brownie” combined, and pumped up on steroids.

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  14. Mister Bluster says:
  15. CSK says:

    Trump looks like a surly, stupid, petulant thug in that hat.

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  16. An Interested Party says:

    Trump looks like a surly, stupid, petulant thug in that hat.

    Well that’s probably because HE IS a surly, stupid, petulant thug…

    1