COVID-19 Diaries: Diplomacy Takes New Turns During Pandemic


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STATE DEPARTMENT - I know it's not very polite to stare at others, but checking out the masks and cloth face coverings that people are wearing at the State Department makes me smile and provides a good way to start a conversation.

Some are Ninja-style black fabrics. Others looks like ski-mask turtlenecks. There are also some with white fabric and flowers that appear to be home-made. Many are standard masks in blue or white.

During a visit to the cafeteria in the State Department's Harry S. Truman Building this week, I found the usually bustling area to be largely quiet and unoccupied, as it has been since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

"For purposes of social distancing, cafeteria seating will remain closed for the time being. We ask that you please do not sit in this area," says a sign on one of the tables that have been blocked off for weeks. Another poster says the risk level at the facility remains high.

A cafeteria manager, who was wearing a mask, told me the food services would close at 2 pm. In a smaller sitting area where the tables are not blocked off, I saw six security officers seated during a work break with several feet between them.

There do appear to be a few more people around the building than in previous weeks.

While most employees are still working remotely, the State Department has begun a phased plan to ease travel restrictions and gradually bring people back to the workplace, in both "domestic offices" and "overseas posts."

"On May 1, the Department unveiled Diplomacy Strong, a phased, conditions-based approach to adjust the number of employees physically present and the number of employees teleworking in response to evolving COVID-19 conditions," a State Department spokesperson told VOA.

Operational guidance includes policies on travel, telework, face coverings, and social distancing in common spaces such as cafeterias.

During Phase I, cloth face coverings "should be worn" when social distancing is not feasible, according to the guidance. Facial covering "may be worn" in Phase II but there is no mention of masks in Phase III.

Dr. William Walters, deputy chief medical officer for operations of the State Department's Bureau of Medical Services, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's decisions on the reopening "are made day-by-day, based on trends, looking for a 14-day downward trend."

The silver lining for me as a reporter is to enjoy the spotless bathroom and the extra space in the briefing room. Due to social distancing, seats are limited for Pompeo's on-camera briefings, and other senior officials talk to reporters via telephone briefings. There is no need to fight for a parking spot on the streets near Foggy Bottom.

According to the "Diplomacy Strong" plan, only "mission-critical" travel is permitted during Phase I. That will be expanded to "unrestricted essential" and "limited non-essential" travel in Phase II, and then to a "cautious resumption" of normal travel in Phase III.

This week, Pompeo was in Israel meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new coalition partner Benny Gantz. They discussed issues related to "Iran's malign influence" in the region and the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Pompeo was on the ground for less than 9 hours.

The trip comes after Israel's supreme court paved the way for the right-wing Netanyahu to form a coalition government with centrist opposition leader Benny Gantz after three inconclusive elections over the past year.

This is the chief U.S. diplomat's first foreign travel since March 23-24 when he went to Kabul and Doha for talks about the Afghan peace process. Since then, his engagement with counterparts around the globe has been restricted to mostly virtual encounters.

In the same time period a year ago, Pompeo was constantly on the move, with visits to Kuwait, Israel, Lebanon, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Colombia, Finland, Iraq, Britain, Belgium, and Russia.

Diplomats are "social creatures by training" and there are challenges as a result of COVID-19, said United Arab Emirates' ambassador to the United Nations Lana Nusseibeh during a recent webinar.

"You don't have that moment for the diplomatic [pull] aside at a reception where you hear a piece of interesting information, or you're able to come to a compromise on a resolution, finding that middle ground" by physically being there.

"I think that this is pushing us to be far more creative diplomats than we have been in the past," Nusseibeh said.