Pandemic Upends US Government Operations, Pushing Tradition-bound to Embrace Remote Work


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WASHINGTON - On Capitol Hill, the nation's lawmakers are split on how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Under the same advice from the U.S. Capitol physician, the U.S. House of Representatives announced this week that its members would continue to work remotely while the U.S. Senate will be back in session in the nation's capital next Monday.

It's the latest sign of how the global pandemic has reshaped the daily operations of U.S. government institutions, upending predictable routines of government and often pushing tradition-bound organizations into using technology to operate remotely.

Six weeks into stay at home orders, House lawmakers are just beginning to adapt by holding virtual press conferences and committee hearings that will restart the legislative branch's oversight and law-making functions. But a proposal for remote voting is still being negotiated between leadership in both parties.

White House dominated by briefings

At the White House, the changes to daily operations are immediately visible. The once-quiet White House briefing room now hosts almost daily coronavirus task force briefings.

According to rules laid out by the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA), only about a third of the 49 seats in the James Brady Briefing room can be occupied to properly observe social distancing. The WHCA has urged reporters not to come to the briefings unless they have a seat. But in the Rose Garden, where President Donald Trump has held some task force briefings, those association rules do not apply and most reporters show up.

Members of the press entering the White House get their temperature taken twice, once at the gate and again before entering the briefing room. Reporters traveling on Air Force 2 with the vice president were tested, a change from earlier in the pandemic when President Trump flew to Norfolk, Virginia at the end of March to send off hospital ship USNS Comfort.

At that time, the group of seven reporters were not tested for fever. During Trump's informal off the record discussion with reporters no one wore masks but did observe social distancing.

About 70 percent of reporters wear masks now, including some who wear the protective gear on camera, according to estimates by VOA's White House correspondents. Once seated, not many reporters wear the masks, but most of the photographers and technicians do remain covered. Despite its appearance on television, the briefing room is quite small and can easily become tightly packed with members of the press.

Social distancing at the State Department

At the State Department, social distancing has been facilitated by limiting the number of reporters attending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's on-camera briefings, as well as a growing comfort level with video conferencing technology.

"The most common phrase right now when you start a meeting is 'if you're not speaking, please mute your microphone'," a State Department official joked as video conferences and group calls have now become a new daily routine amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Health diplomacy" is now the "in" word, the official said. For the first time, the gathering of G-7 foreign ministers was held by video teleconference instead of in-person. It was originally scheduled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 24 and 25.

Pompeo curbs travel

At this time last year, note VOA State Department correspondents, Pompeo traveled to Kuwait, Israel, Lebanon, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Colombia. The coronavirus outbreak has limited the top U.S. diplomat's foreign travels, and resulted in cancellations of several planned international gatherings in the U.S.

The State Department also rescheduled a March special summit with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), originally planned in Las Vegas.

Pompeo later had a virtual meeting with his counterparts from the Southeast Asian bloc on April 22, with the focus on combating COVID-19.

"It's certainly a challenge," State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told VOA. "The pandemic is just allowing us to be a little bit more creative as diplomats."

But COVID-19 does not stop the U.S. from working with allies.

"We were on the plane for almost two days straight. It was rather exhausting," Ortagus recalled about the previously unannounced trip to Kabul and Doha March 23-24 for the Afghan peace process.

Pentagon officials 'doing more with less'

At the world's largest office building, the impact of COVID-19 is clear. Military officials at the Pentagon must either do more with less staff in the building or work longer hours at home to accommodate not having certain resources at their fingertips.

"It feels like we've had a month full of Mondays," one Navy official told VOA.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper's international travel has ground to a halt. His last international trip was to Kabul on Feb. 29 ahead of the U.S. and the Taliban signing a "reduction in violence" deal. VOA's Pentagon correspondent was supposed to be on a trip with Esper to South Asia in March; now it's unclear when, or if, that trip will happen. Esper has made only two domestic trips, both related to COVID-19.

Tens of thousands of active U.S. troops were supposed to deploy in March, April and May for exercises ranging from African Lion in Morocco, Defender 2020 across Europe and Balikatan in the Philippines. Instead, tens of thousands of troops, mostly National Guardsmen, deployed across America to help combat COVID-19.

The Pentagon recently extended its "stop movement order" through the end of June, leaving many service members and their families who had expected to move to a city, state, or country, in limbo. Esper has said the new order will be reviewed every two weeks, but that's only increased the uncertainty.

Navy quarantining sailors

After a coronavirus outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt sidelined the aircraft carrier for weeks in Guam, the Navy now quarantines sailors before allowing them to deploy on ships. The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier got underway in the Pacific this week after sailors were quarantined for 27 days.

The Army last week resumed shipping new recruits to basic training after a two-week pause due to coronavirus. However, only recruits from areas deemed low-risk for coronavirus are currently being allowed into training, while those from high-risk areas have been rescheduled for future dates.

The changes have become the Pentagon's new normal, as officials say they must worry about coronavirus until a vaccine is available.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said Thursday, "I think the nation is going to be battling COVID for six months to a year."

VOA's Patsy Widakuswara, Nike Ching, and Carla Babb contributed to this report.