WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government is restricting some of its 2.1 million employees from traveling and encouraging people to work from home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected 111,000 people in 105 countries.
Federal agencies’ directives to workers on how to manage the risks of the disease vary widely, however.
Nearly a quarter of federal workers are in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, where a church popular with government officials has been shuttered after a rector tested positive for coronavirus, and two recent conferences have reported attendees had the virus.
Office of Management and Budget
The office, which supervises the administration of the executive branch, on Thursday encouraged agencies to encourage telework for people who are older, have a chronic health condition or are pregnant, and thus more likely to become very ill if they contract the virus.
It also encouraged federal agencies to consult with local health agencies about whether to extend telework flexibilities more broadly in areas where there is community spread.
Agencies are also encouraged to extend telework to people whose children are off school.
The U.S. Congress closed its doors to most of the public Thursday.
Tourist visits to the U.S. Capitol complex – home to the House of Representatives and Senate – were suspended after a Senate staffer tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Senator Maria Cantwell’s U.S. capital office was closed after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Her home state, Washington, is among those hit hardest by the virus.
Several other lawmakers also closed offices as a precaution.
A total of 530 elected, voting lawmakers and more than 10,000 staffers currently work in the U.S. Capitol office building and surrounding offices; they can only cast most votes in person.
Covid-19, the flu-like disease caused by the virus, is more dangerous for people 60 and over, health officials warn. The average age for lawmakers at the beginning of the 116th Congress was 57.6 years for Representatives and 62.9 years for Senators.
The Supreme Court
The court was closed to visitors Thursday.
About 26,000 people work in the Department of Defense’s headquarters building in Arlington, Virginia. All public tours have been cancelled, but not official visits.
The DOD on Wednesday banned travel to “level 3 danger” countries, which includes China, much of Europe and South Korea, and encouraged offices to cancel all non-essential large gatherings.
The U.S. State Department advised Americans to avoid traveling abroad altogether on Wednesday. It has also urged U.S. citizens, particularly those with chronic health conditions, not to travel on cruise ships.
The agency has so far provided little public information on how it is handling its coronavirus response among its own employees. The agency has decided to suspend non-essential travel by staff, Reuters reported.
Decisions about travel by employees stationed abroad would be made by U.S. embassies and consulates, while Washington-based staff must obtain approval from their bureaus.
Attorney General William Barr, who runs the nearly 115,000 person agency, which includes the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Prisons, was exposed to the virus and stayed home Friday.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force, which meets daily with Vice President Michael Pence and top health officials. The department hasn’t issued any public guidance to its more than 100,000 employees worldwide.
Department of Energy
The department, with 14,000 employees and 95,000 contract workers, barred travel to China and Iran, which are hard hit by the coronavirus, and asked employees to defer in-person meetings with people who live in China, Iran, Italy or South Korea.
It also canceled all non-essential international travel and is looking at plans to cut back on domestic travel, but has published https://science.osti.gov/DOE-Resources-Supporting-Coronavirus-Research public information about the disease.
Federal Communications Commission
The U.S. telecommunications regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, banned all visitors from the agency and told staffers to work from home if at all possible, its chairman said on Thursday.
Chairman Ajit Pai wrote on Twitter that no visitors will be allowed in the agency without special permission. “This measure will remain in effect for the foreseeable future,” the agency said in a statement.
Pai said he encouraged officials and advocates who wanted to meet with agency officials to organize a teleconference.
Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission, whose 1,100 staffers enforce antitrust law and rules against deceptive marketing, encouraged staffers to avoid in-person meetings and said they could telework.
Securities and Exchange Commission
The agency on Monday issued a memo encouraging staff to work remotely after an employee was treated for respiratory symptoms and had been referred for coronavirus testing.
Most of its 4,350 staff work at the Washington, D.C. headquarters, and are currently teleworking, according to a notice on the agency’s website.