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Washington Local Governments Tackle Reopening Plans


June 7, 2021  by  Tracy Burrows
Category:  Personnel Policies Operating Policies COVID-19

Washington Local Governments Tackle Reopening Plans

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed local governments to innovate at a pace that is rarely possible under normal circumstances. Cities, counties, and special districts drafted telecommute options overnight and created online tools and portals to keep business operations functioning. Now that office work is returning to more normal conditions, local governments are taking the same creativity, technology, and information-sharing that helped us get through the past year and are applying it to the challenges of operating under more settled but still uncertain conditions.

Local governments are reopening their public buildings to staff and the public at a time when public health and safety guidance and requirements are still somewhat fluid. So, let’s take a look how local governments in Washington are adapting to changing conditions as they reopen their public spaces.

This blog focuses on reopening plans, including the timing of reopening, and mask, vaccination, and telecommute policies.

Timing of Reopening

Local governments are taking a variety of approaches to the timing and phasing of office reopening. A recent poll of the 222 local government staff who attended our Policies and Practices for the Post-COVID Office webinar yielded the following results to the question, “When is your agency planning to have non-essential workers return to the office on a regular schedule?”

  • 33% — We have no established timeframe
  • 28% — We are opening in June or July
  • 21% — We are already reopened
  • 17% — We are opening in August or September
  • 2% — We are opening by the end of the year

Several local governments are planning a phased return to the office. The City of Redmond’s Stay Safe Reopening Plan includes a five-stage strategy for reopening city facilities, services, and programs. Under this plan, the city’s workforce returns gradually, and facilities initially reopen for limited hours. Transitions to the next stage are based on  guidelines and data analysis offered by the State of Washington.

Some local governments are taking a two-phased approach to returning to the office. Phase 1 includes a reopening of public buildings for walk-in customer service, which adheres to Governor Inslee’s June 30 statewide reopening goal. In this phase, a city hall or county courthouse would be open for limited walk-in services, with commensurate office staffing. Walk-in services would be available during restricted hours or by appointment only. In Phase 2, all remaining local government staff would return to the office, typically planned for September or October.

Note that the statewide reopening goal of June 30 does not automatically compel cities and counties to open up city hall or the county courthouse to the public on that specific date. Local government elected officials have the authority to establish the days and hours that offices are open for the transaction of business under RCW 35A.21.070 (code cities), RCW 35.21.175 (non-code cities and towns), and RCW 36.16.100 (counties).

Vaccination and Face Mask Policies

MRSC’s blog Face Masks in the Local Government Workplace provides a comprehensive overview of the current guidance and regulation related to vaccinated and unvaccinated workers on the jobsite. In terms of local authority to require face masks, the blog states:

MRSC believes that local agencies may require employees to comply with directives to wear facial coverings just as the agency can require employees to wear other protective gear. 

As for customers and other public visitors to your agency’s facilities, we believe that you have the statutory authority to require them to wear a face covering if they want to conduct business in person.

As with office reopening, local governments are taking a range of approaches to vaccination and mask-wearing. One common approach is to establish clear face mask rules for fully vaccinated and non-vaccinated employees.

The City of Walla Walla has clear rules for either group. Fully vaccinated employees are not required to wear masks but have the option to do so. Non-vaccinated employees are required to wear masks except under limited circumstances. Publicly accessed lobby areas have posted signs that state: Wearing a mask remains required for non-vaccinated patrons and is encouraged but not required for fully vaccinated patrons. Libraries and recreation facilities that serve children under 12 who are not currently eligible for vaccination require masks for all patrons.

Another common approach is to continue to require employees to wear face masks in all indoor settings. This approach may be preferred in cases where it is in alignment with county public health officer guidance or requirements, which can be stricter than state guidance. Some local governments are choosing this approach to avoid staff divisions based on vaccine status or because of concerns about creating public records related to vaccination.

Guidance from the Washington State Labor and Industries states that, before ending masking and social distancing requirements, employers must confirm whether workers are fully vaccinated by having the worker sign a document attesting to their status or provide proof of vaccination. For information on managing records of vaccination status, see MRSC’s blog: Vaccine Incentive Policies in the Local Government Workplace.

MRSC’s COVID-19 Operations and Personnel webpage includes several additional examples of reopening plans that address face masks, vaccinations, and other health and safety considerations. For example the City of Issaquah’s protection plan requires face coverings in all city buildings with a provision that this requirement will be reconsidered when vaccination across city departments reaches 70%. It also has a vaccine requirement for all new hires.

Updated Telecommute Policies

Policies and Practices for the Post-COVID Office webinar attendees also weighed in on how their agencies are approaching telecommuting policies. In response to the question: “Is your agency changing its telecommute policy in response to the past year of COVID experience?” the majority (70% of  respondents) said their agency was either working on a new policy or had adopted a new policy based on the past year. Full poll results were as follows:

  • 51% — Yes, we are working on a new policy
  • 19% — Yes, we have completed a new policy
  • 17% — Not sure/none of the above
  • 11% — No, we are returning to our pre-COVID status
  • 2% — No, we are keeping our current COVID policy in place

Of the local governments updating their policies, several started with a staff survey to gain insight into the benefits and challenges of working remotely. The City of Shoreline’s survey has specific questions about improving communications and information flow in a remote work environment. The City of Renton’s survey includes feedback on the kinds of technology support that staff has requested assistance with over a standard work week.

Updated telework policies generally offer more flexibility than pre-COVID practices (which often discouraged working from home on a regular basis). These new policies may or may not specify a minimum number of days that employees must be present in the office. In either case, the key to a successful remote working relationship is for managers to stay in touch with employees, remote or otherwise. In today’s workplace, checking in on a coworker remotely can be as easy as walking down the hall to speak to them, and managers should be comfortable using digital communication tools.

When establishing criteria for telework eligibility, consider whether the criteria treat lower wage employees equitably. Often, these employees staff the front counter and may not have been able to telecommute in the past. However, the past year has shown that local governments can provide outstanding customer service online or from a remote location. Think creatively about how to provide convenient service and be curious as to why some customers prefer to travel to your offices to conduct business. You may find opportunities that allow the flexibility for your valued customer service staff to work from home, even if on a more limited basis.

New policies, checklists, and telecommuting agreements adopted by Whatcom County and the City of Kent show approaches to addressing typical provisions, including:

  • established criteria for the types of positions that qualify for telecommuting options;
  • work schedules and work coverage expectations, including standard work hours and breaks;
  • respective responsibilities of the agency and the employee related to at-home technology and equipment;
  • workspace safety provisions;
  • records security and management standards; and
  • telecommute agreement signed by the employee and appropriate agency representatives.

MRSC will continue to gather information on how area agencies are handling operations, personnel, and facilities decisions as the end of the COVID-19 pandemic approaches. If you are interested in sharing your agency’s reopening plan, please send it to tburrows@mrsc.org.

In the meantime, our COVID-19 Operations and Personnel webpage is the source for relevant sample documents related to reopening plans for Washington local governments. 


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.

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