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With virus surging, Cronk revises return-to-work plan

Friday, June 26, 2020 by Jo Clifton

City Manager Spencer Cronk announced Thursday that he was postponing reintegrating city employees back into the workplace for a month due to concerns about the increase in Covid-19 cases. Instead of starting on June 29, the first phase is now scheduled for July 27, according to a memo from Cronk to City Council.

At about the same time Thursday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he was halting elective surgical procedures in hospitals in Travis, Bexar, Dallas and Harris counties, where the rapid increase in coronavirus cases has raised red flags, and also pausing business reopenings. That means restaurants can continue to serve patrons at 75 percent capacity, while other types of businesses will continue to be limited to 50 percent.

In response to a question about when he made the decision to postpone returning to the workplace, Cronk said via email, “At the end of May, I notified all employees of the city’s plans to begin the initial phase of reintegrating into the workplace. Recent trends in Covid-19 cases have understandably raised concerns in the community and our workforce. Employee safety is a primary concern for me, and after conferring with local health authorities, we are officially delaying all phases of the three-phase reintegration plan. We will continue to assess data and work environments to determine next steps for introducing additional employees back into the workplace.”

Between June 20 and 24, more than 1,200 additional people tested positive for the coronavirus in Travis County and hospitalizations of people with Covid-19 shot up from 172 to 274, according to regional medical experts. This is a particularly worrying statistic. On Thursday night, 293 were hospitalized and the city registered an additional 183 infections for a total of 7,097 identified as having the virus in Travis County.

Mayor Steve Adler told the Austin Monitor via email, “If we stay on our current trajectory, our hospitals will be overwhelmed in July. We need people to be more disciplined and dedicated to wearing masks any time they’re around other people, strictly observant of 6-foot social distancing, and staying home when they can. The city needs to reflect this imperative in everything over which it has control.” Cronk’s decision to delay reopening “is an example of that,” he concluded.

The manager’s memo noted that during the first phase of reintegration, certain offices will require members of the public to have appointments for in-person meetings. Cronk wrote that the city will work to install Plexiglas barriers for those whose job functions require interacting with the public and other staff. All employees will be required to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and clean work surfaces frequently.

Cronk estimates that phase 2 of reintegration of employees back into the workplace will take place on or about Aug. 24 and will include essential as well as some nonessential employees.

“This phase includes roles that have some ability to telework but may need to be at the worksite for certain hours or days to perform specific job duties or deliver services to the public,” he wrote. This may involve altered work schedules with different employees having to stagger schedules and start/end times. All employees will still be required to wear masks.

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