“Government must immediately adjust operations and services to minimize face-to-face interactions, especially at those offices or sites where people may be gathering in close proximity or where highly vulnerable populations obtain services,” Vought wrote.
He urged agencies to quickly communicate to the public any non-essential services they decide to cut — and postpone “non-mission critical functions” to limit the virus’s spread. He acknowledged that exceptions would be necessary for operations that protect public health and safety, including those in law enforcement and criminal justice roles.
The memo was the strongest direction yet to federal leaders to put themselves on an emergency footing to fight the coronavirus. But it did not order agencies to trigger what are known as “continuity of operations” plans, the most extreme emergency planning tool at their disposal to scale back to essential services.
Under those plans, as many employees as possible would work from home, but government services would be substantially pared down, similar to a shutdown. Thousands of employees would not be working, emergency management experts said, although they would be paid. The White House has told agencies to prepare for this scenario.
Still, “this is an indication that the administration understands it’s not going to be business as usual going forward,” said Daniel Kaniewski, who served until February as the Trump administration’s second-in-command at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is now a managing director at Marsh & McLennan Companies, a risk management and consulting firm.
“Right now agencies have the luxury of having all their staff available, but this could change if the situation worsens,” Kaniewski said.
It was unclear how quickly and to what degree agencies would curtail services in response. The U.S. Census Bureau announced Wednesday that it was suspending all field operations for two weeks until April 1. During this pause, the bureau said, it will continue to evaluate all 2020 Census operations. The bureau urged the public to respond to the census questionnaire online.
The Food and Drug Administration postponed routine inspections of food and drugs in its domestic surveillance facilities. The agency took the actions for “the health and well-being of our staff and those who conduct inspections for the agency under contract at the state level, and because of industry concerns about visitors,” the FDA said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration began closing field offices across the country and restricting the face-to-face services they offer to limit contract with customers.
Vought demanded an “aggressive posture” from government leaders in his memo, which reflected a more intense focus on working from home for those employees whose jobs allow it. He ordered agencies to “maximize” remote work for employees and thousands of federal contractors who function side by side with civil servants. The White House has come under criticism for failing to aggressively push telework after private companies weeks ago sent their employees home to work.
As of Wednesday, some agencies were resisting efforts to curtail face-to-face contact between employees and the public.
Administrative law judges who preside over Social Security Administration (SSA) disability hearings have for weeks asked their agency to allow them to direct those who come before them — often the elderly and people with health problems — to handle hearings by phone if anyone arrives sick at the hearing rooms.
They were denied this request.
Following Vought’s directive and President Trump’s call to limit gatherings to no more than 10 people, the judges asked governors to intervene and expanded their request to a postponement of all in-person hearings.
“By being required to report to work in person, we are at risk of spreading the virus to others, including our neighbors and loved ones,” said Judge Melissa McIntosh, union president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges. “Our country has shut down offices, sporting events, in-dining restaurants and shopping. . . . We are asking each governor in every state to intervene and demand the SSA fully comply with federal and state guidance.”
Some employees from agencies across the government, as well as contractors they work with, were calling their representatives in Congress to say they were still being ordered to come into the office.
“It’s a huge contradiction for the president to say people should not gather in groups larger than 10 people when his administration is failing to provide similar guidance to the men and women who serve the public in federal service,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D), whose Northern Virginia district includes tens of thousands of federal employees and contractors.
House and Senate Democrats in recent days have urged the president to issue an executive order calling for mandatory telework for the workforce to protect them and the public from possible infection.
Late Tuesday, 62 House Democrats led by Connolly followed similar action in the Senate, signing a letter to Trump demanding an “immediate telework mandate” to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“We are concerned . . . by reports from constituents that some federal supervisors continue to deny telework requests from federal employees and federal contractors who have the capacity to telework and can do so while supporting agency mission-critical functions,” said the letter.
Vought’s memo also instructed agencies to restrict anyone infected by covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and those at higher risk of contracting it, from federal buildings.
Michael E. Ruane contributed to this story.