State Dept to begin Phase 1 reopening in DC metro area June 15

The State Department is taking a big step next week in bringing some employees back to the office, the first step in a multi-phase effort to resume full operations.

A State Department official told Federal News Network that the agency is “closely monitoring” local conditions in the greater Washington metro area, and expects to enter Phase One of its reopening plan, Diplomacy Strong, next Monday, June 15.

Agency officials have described Diplomacy Strong as 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.

“While department employees have continued working during the pandemic, the Diplomacy Strong program focuses on safely returning our workforce to department facilities as conditions permit,” the official said.

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The State Department official said telework is no longer mandatory in Phase One, but said the agency will still “strongly encourage maximum use of telework opportunities.”

Last month in a briefing with reporters, Dr. William Walters, the deputy chief medical officer for operations with the agency’s Bureau of Medical Services, said moving into Phase One under the Diplomacy Strong initiative, based out of the Undersecretary for Management’s office, would depend on a 14-day downward trend in COVID-19 cases.

The first phase of reopening in the Washington metro area, he added, would be based on the rate of coronavirus cases in Maryland, DC and Virginia.

Walters said Brian Bulatao, the undersecretary for Management, would send an email outlining risk mitigation steps to employees once they got closer to Phase One conditions, and described Diplomacy Strong as “very assertive in getting people back to work, but not overly aggressive in a way that puts people at increased risk.”

“The department, like the rest of the federal government, like the rest of the United States, is on the one hand very anxious to bring people back to the workplace and keep the productivity up, supporting our mandate to the American people, while at the same time balancing risk,” Walters said.

Multiple news outlets obtained copies of the State Department’s reopening plan in May. A copy posted by Axios shows that up to 40% of the agency’s workforce could return to the office during Phase One, while 40-80% would return in Phase Two. The remainder would return in Phase Three.

The State Department late last month announced passport services, part of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, would resume with “limited staff” during Phase One, but did not set a public timeline of when passport offices would reopening under this plan.

However, the agency said that each passport agency and center will open on different dates based on local conditions.