Questions Remain About Reopening State Offices in Florida
More than a month after Gov. Ron DeSantis began restarting Florida’s economy, his administration has not issued guidance for how state agencies should reopen offices to workers and the public.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many state workers have been working from home and have been following telework and sick leave policies issued in March by the Department of Management Services, an executive agency that oversees state personnel matters.
But the department had not outlined return-to-work protocols as of Tuesday, nearly two weeks after DeSantis moved into the second phase of the state’s economic reopening plan, which includes allowing expanded operations at restaurants and reopening bars and gyms. The first phase started in early May.
“Discussions are ongoing as to the reopening of state buildings. The work from the state agencies has been ongoing with some employees working from the office or teleworking,” Helen Aguirre Ferre, a spokeswoman for the governor, told The News Service of Florida in an email Monday.
Ferre did not answer repeated questions about the administration’s plan to reopen state offices or why DeSantis’ timeline for reopening has been different for businesses.
Meanwhile, some state agencies are operating under the months-old guidance for telework until told otherwise.
“FDOT (the Florida Department of Transportation) continues to follow the previous guidance issued from DMS (the Department of Management Services) at this time,” Beth Frady, a spokeswoman for the transportation agency, told the News Service in an email Monday.
At least one DeSantis administration agency, the Department of Health, has put in place an internal reopening plan.
On June 8, department officials sent an email to employees noting that “phase 2 of the Return from Telework Plan” had officially kicked off, according to a copy of the email obtained by the News Service.
The second phase of the plan allows 50 percent of department employees to return to the office and reopens department buildings and offices to the public with social distancing measures, the email said.
“The division director or other designated authority has complete discretion in selecting which employees will return to work under phase two,” the email said.
When Department of Health employees arrive at work, they will be “encouraged” but not required to wear face masks in the office, according to department guidelines.
“Employees may wear masks at their discretion. The department will have masks available upon request,” department officials said in the email.
The use of cloth face coverings is recommended in all business areas by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unless a person has trouble breathing, is unable to tolerate wearing it or is unable to remove it without assistance.
Other guidelines from the Department of Health include cleaning high-touch and high-traffic areas in offices “at least daily,” asking employees to avoid handshakes and close quarters and screening visitors for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 prior to entering buildings.
Alberto Moscoso, a spokesman for the Department of Health, did not respond to repeated requests for information about whether the department would open offices across the state or if it would exclude offices in counties where COVID-19 is more concentrated.
Attorney General Ashley Moody and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who operate their offices independently from the DeSantis administration, have been considering county-level data as they move forward with reopening plans.
Moody’s office crafted a reopening plan with the help of medical professionals at the University of Florida that began to allow up to 25 percent of department employees to return to the office on a voluntary basis on June 2.
“High-risk individuals will continue to work from home. Our offices in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach are excluded at this time,” Lauren Cassidy, a spokeswoman for Moody’s office, said at the time. “Additionally, masks will be required and provided in communal spaces.”
Southeast Florida has had by far the most COVID-19 cases in the state.
The Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, headed by Fried, has drafted a reopening plan that will require employees to use face masks in workplaces and will allow vulnerable employees, such as those who are over age 65 or who have underlying medical conditions, to continue working from home.
The draft plan, obtained by the News Service, notes that desks and cubicles will be placed six feet apart, in-person meetings will be limited to 10 people, and visitors will be required to make appointments for in-office services.
Seating will be barred from waiting rooms. Break rooms and other common areas will be temporarily shut down. Inspectors will be required to use face masks at all times when checking food establishments, supermarkets or other private businesses.
Fried has repeatedly bashed the governor’s handling of the pandemic and slammed him for keeping her off a task force that looked at reopening the state’s economy.
In some instances, her office’s safety guidelines could be stricter than those put forth by the DeSantis administration in absence of Department of Management Services return-to-work guidelines.
“Employees in a private or DMS-leased facility must adhere to any safety guidelines provided by the facility unless our guidelines were stricter and then should be followed,” Fried’s office noted in its plan.