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Planning for the Safe Reopening of Public Buildings

The coronavirus emergency has had dramatic impacts on everyone’s day-to-day life, and local government is no exception. They have had to deal with an enormous number of issues stemming from the pandemic, but it appears that most have developed workable solutions (some very different from pre-pandemic times) to continue their operations and ensure that essential government work gets done, at least for the time being.

With this temporary “new normal” work routine in place, it seems strange to think about returning to a more usual work environment. At some point in the not-too-distant future, however, you will be reopening your buildings/offices, to your staff and, in some cases, to the public. So, it may be time to start planning now for that eventuality, with “phased reopening” being an approach that many local governments will be considering.

Different Phases of Reopening

A key decision point will be when to reopen your different public buildings and facilities, both to your own employees and then to the public. It is up to each local government and public agency to decide when to reopen their facilities and who needs to physically return to work. When making those determinations, it is advisable to start slow and do it in phases. It may also be wise to contemplate using flexible work policies for those with limitations (such as high-risk health factors, childcare challenges, and transportation issues), especially for any employees who can work remotely. Of course, there are some government jobs with duties that that can only be fulfilled by physically being at a given location (for example, maintenance workers and gardeners).

Many communities are contemplating a general, three-phase approach (not to be confused with the phases mentioned in Governor Inslee’s proclamations). The first phase may be where only a limited number of staff physically return to work and public meetings are still held remotely. The second phase will likely involve more staff returning to their workplaces and opening some public agency buildings/facilities to the general public in a limited capacity. The third phase envisions all public buildings and facilities (including community centers and senior centers) being open to the public. This blog post focuses on the first and second phases.

Some communities have already instituted their version of “phase one” and have “essential employees” working at their offices, albeit using the safeguards. Other local governments have a vast majority of their staff working remotely from home and are just now starting to think about the steps needed to reopen their public facilities.

Issues to Consider When Preparing to Open

Below are some items to consider when planning how to reopen your offices and facilities, first to your staff and then to the general public.

Public employees

Maintaining social distancing is a practice likely to be recommended for several months to come. In addition, public agencies should evaluate the following actions when thinking about reopening their facilities

How will you provide Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for employees? This may include the following items:

  • Cloth face coverings/masks. You will also need to decide where/when you will require that employees wear them while on the job
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Thermometers, such as infrared or temperature-based thermometers
  • Gloves, especially for staff who will be handling cash, accepting applications, etc., from the public

How will you clean and “regulate” the use of work areas? While work areas for each location is unique, this could include the following practices:

  • Establish and follow rigorous cleaning procedures for both individual workspaces and general areas (including daily and weekly protocols).
  • Strongly encourage frequent and proper handwashing.
  • Take steps to ensure social distancing between employees can be maintained at all times.
  • Provide self-check stations with thermometers at all employee entrances (using the honor system is a pragmatic approach); put signage up to remind employees to stop and “self-check”at stations near employee entrances (having a temperature below 100.4 F° is the currently recommended standard).
  • Provide for a six-foot minimum distance throughout your worksites when possible. If your hallways are not wide enough, consider putting directional arrows on the floor (like many grocery stores have done) to achieve that six-foot minimum.
  • Continue to promote remote meetings. Limit in-person employee meetings to five or fewer people, if possible; otherwise, have people sit at least six feet apart.
  • Close or restrict the use of common areas (such as kitchens and lunch/break rooms)
  • Establish staggered work shifts if employees must work closer than six feet to each other.
  • Establish policies for restroom use. Decide whether you will require employees to wear masks while using these facilities and/or if you will limit the number of people using them at a given time (For the latter, one idea would be to have an “in use/not in use” message board at the entrance, which could be flipped by employees while gloved).
  • Limit the number of persons using onsite elevators and require/encourage riders to wear a cloth face covering.
  • Limit vehicle use to only one employee whenever possible.

While Governor Inslee’s office is likely to provide specific guidance about employee PPEs and workplace cleaning protocols in the near future, the lists above are meant to provide early information to help you think through these issues in advance.

Members of the public

 When community members are allowed to enter into public agency offices and other public facilities, it is important to maintain the appropriate level of social distancing between them and your staff. Below are some steps to consider for areas where employees and the public will come in contact.

  • Install plexiglass barriers/sneeze guards at counters or other space where public/staff interface frequently.
  • Require or strongly encourage the public to wear masks while in a public building.
  • Put tape/markings on the floor to demarcate a six-foot distance of queuing space for people waiting to use utility payment areas, permit counters, etc.
  • Remove most chairs from public areas, leaving some seating designated for people with physical limitations.
  • Set numerical limits on how many people can be in a public building at any given time to address social distancing requirements.
    • For people who are unable to enter when they first arrive, establish a system that has them “take a number” and be notified when they will be allowed access — perhaps by sending a text or phone message (like some sit-down restaurants do) or using a numerical display (like those used by fast food restaurants and delis).
    • Some Washington communities are considering requiring anyone who wishes to enter a public building have their temperature taken prior to being allowed entrance.
  • Strongly encourage the public to continue meeting with staff remotely when possible and to make appointments to meet with staff when in-person meetings are necessary.
  • Establish a restroom use policy — You can consider the same options as listed above for public employees. Because it would be difficult to ensure that the public would follow those procedures, some local governments are considering keeping restrooms closed to the public, at least during the time when access to public facilities is being limited.

Local governments operating municipal courts will also need to create accommodations that allow the courts to function during the COVID-19 pandemic. This could include implementation of special measures to help maintain the safety of visitors wanting to pay their fines, the judge, prosecuting and defense attorneys, defendants, and audience members. For employees working outdoors, it might be prudent to institute protocols similar to those issued by the governor’s office for construction workers.

How to Get Started

There are  a lot of significant issues to be considered when a local government is preparing a plan to reopen its public facilities as the coronavirus emergency enters a new stage.

  1. Create an in-house task force (which many of you are already convened) to talk through the multitude of issues to be addressed and develop your plan.
  2. Gather information from a number of reliable sources.
  3. Communicate often with your staff. Be sure to solicit ideas and be open to feedback.
  4. Be flexible. There are likely to be concerns and different needs that you should be willing to consider when planning a “recovery/reopening” strategy. If you undertake an action and it doesn’t work, be open to trying something else.


The coronavirus pandemic has caused many organizations and employees to realize that much of their work can be done remotely. This realization has raised a fundamental question: Who actually needs to be physically present to fulfill a governmental function? This may represent a major “sea change” in how the modern office work environment, both in the public and private sectors, will operate in the future. How this works itself out in the months and years ahead remains to be seen.

In the meantime, local governments should begin planning for when and how their public buildings and facilities will reopen over the next few weeks/months, in addition to dealing with the issue of who should physically be there to staff them.

Additional Resources

Here are some local resources to help guide your reopening plans.

Here are some resources from the federal government.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) website includes the following webpages:

The White House’s Guidelines for Opening Up America Again provides information about the three-phased reopening approach based on the advice of public health experts

I want to thank Jeff DiDonato, Division Chief, Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority; Shari Crain, Police Chief, City of Sequim; and Tracy Burrows, Executive Director, MRSC for contributing background information and ideas for this blog post.

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.

Photo of Steve Butler

About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.