Pentagon Weighs Metro and Schools in Plan to Bring Back Workers

The Pentagon is weighing mass transit, schools, day care, and parking as part of a plan to begin reopening the federal government’s largest office building in the coming weeks, according to a draft of the plan and the department’s top spokesman.

All those factors as well as decisions by Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., will help determine when 23,000 department personnel could begin returning to work as usual amid the pandemic, said Jonathan Hoffman, chief Pentagon spokesman. The finalized plan is expected to be released as early as this week but a draft version lays out a six-week, conditions-based process.

About 80% of Pentagon personnel are now working remotely, gatherings are restricted, and amenities such as food services are curbed or closed as the department continues to report new cases of Covid-19 among troops and civilians on a daily basis.

“We will begin to ramp up the number of individuals and the number of offices that are here. That is going to take place over a number of weeks,” Hoffman told reporters during a briefing Friday.

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The Defense Department will likely release a plan this week for bringing workers back to the Pentagon.

The draft plan obtained by Bloomberg Government proposes that each step toward a return to normal would first require a two-week decrease in Covid-19 cases, flu-like illnesses, and the widespread availability of testing. That mirrors the Opening Up America Again guidelines published by the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After three periods of decreasing cases—or at least six weeks—the Pentagon plan envisions a “return to normal” with new telework arrangements and goals that have not yet been settled, no restrictions on gatherings, and open food courts and gyms.

First Phase Challenges

But reaching even the first phase of reopening poses significant challenges.

Under the plan, the first step of bringing a total of 40% of the workforce back to the office would coincide with state and District of Columbia governments lifting stay-at-home orders; public schools reopening or being out of session; available day care; and businesses beginning to reopen.

“We still have to rely on what is the governor of Virginia saying? What is the mayor of D.C. saying? What is the governor of Maryland saying?” Hoffman said.

State and local governments extended stay-at-home orders or business closures for the region this week, despite easing of restrictions elsewhere in Maryland and Virginia. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) extended that stay-at-home order through June 8 and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) allowed northern Virginia to delay reopening until May 28.

Meanwhile, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland announced their stay-at-home orders will remain in place even as Gov. Larry Hogan (R) reopens the rest of the state.

Metro Increase a Consideration

The Pentagon’s planned second phase could mean 80% of workers back in the office, but it also anticipates an increase in Metrorail and bus service, an important factor in commutes to the building from across the region.

Metro would have to increase service with trains every 12 to 15 minutes and buses every 20 to 30 minutes. But the system’s leadership will continue to ask customers to only use service for essential trips this summer as stay-at-home orders are lifted, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said this week.

Its own plan for resuming service doesn’t anticipate reopening of all Metro and bus routes and significant increases in rides until an August-October time frame, according to its newly released recovery plan.

“These are all things we want to make sure are in place,” Hoffman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Travis J. Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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