UN headquarters preparing for three-phase reopening to ‘new normal’ amid COVID-19

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Photo: AP

The sprawling United Nations headquarters, which has remained largely closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is preparing to re-open in three phases with new workplace measures being put in place for staff, diplomats and journalists that will include maximum two-person occupancy in elevators and wearing masks in common areas.

As New York City begins the first phase of reopening from Monday, the UN is also gearing up for its return to normalcy in three phases.

New York, the US city worst-hit by the coronavirus, has reported 211,728 cases and 21,323 deaths.

The US has over 1.94 million infections and at least 110,400 have died.

“The safety and health of UN personnel, delegates and all others on the premises is the number one priority,” Under-Secretary-General for Operational Support Atul Khare said in a UN article.

“The physical return of personnel to the workplace will be in accordance with and will follow – not get ahead of – the loosening of restrictions by New York City and State.”

According to the Department of Operational Support, preparations are under way for an eventual return under Phase 1, with staff from the Facilities and Commercial Activities Service working round the clock to make offices and conference rooms in the 39-floor Secretariat ready.

The United Nations Department of Global Communications (DGC) said in an article that during Phase 1, only select activities will be allowed in the UN headquarters.

The department said that to move into Phase 1, the ‘New York on PAUSE’ executive order must be relaxed.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had extended New York’s PAUSE order, which required people to stay-at-home and all non-essential businesses closed, till June 13.

However, regions across the state have begun phased re-opening once they met seven health-related criteria mandated by the state.

The UN said for the first phase of its re-opening, improvements must also be seen in the local epidemic situation and health care capability, in accordance with city and state recommendations.

In the first phase, maximum occupancy at the Headquarters complex will be capped at 400 people a day, as opposed to the 4,200 limit in normal times.

Emphasis will be strictly on those tasks that must be performed on site and many critical tasks will continue to be done remotely, the department said.

While staff needed to perform on-site functions will be expected to arrive wearing face coverings, no temperature checks will be required to enter the premises and no testing for COVID-19 will be required before their return to the workplace.

All persons on the premises will be expected to wear face coverings when in common areas such as lobbies, elevators, corridors and restrooms.

In general, they will not be required to put on masks at their desks.

During Phases 1 and 2, routine administrative or organisational face-to-face meetings will not be permitted.

The department said that crews have been deployed to disinfect high-density and high-touch areas in the Headquarters complex, which comprises the 39-floor Secretariat tower, the General Assembly Hall, as well as conference and library buildings.

Frequently used areas and surfaces – from lobbies, elevators and restrooms, to furniture, doorknobs, switch plates, as well as handrails, turnstiles and counters are being deep cleaned.

Corridors and walls are being marked to designate new pedestrian traffic routes to ensure that if people are waiting in queues, they still meet physical distancing requirements.

Hand-sanitising stations are being installed in lobbies and other common areas, including at least one station on each office floor.

In Phase 2, building occupancy will gradually increase to a maximum 1,100 personnel a day at the Headquarters complex, or about 40 per cent of normal levels.

Alternate working arrangements will largely remain in place and many personnel will continue to work remotely.

Shifting from Phase 1 to 2 will require a further reduction in the epidemic and strengthening of the health care system in the host city, the UN said.

The UN said phase 3 will be a ‘new normal’ and would take place when workplace risks are reduced to pre-epidemic levels, and COVID-19 related restrictions are lifted by New York City and State, including those that will allow for the reopening of day-care services and public schools.

The Department of Operational Support says it was still too early to outline the work modalities that would be in place under the third phase.

“COVID-19 has changed the way we live, work and interact,” Khare said.

“But we are resilient, and together we can navigate through this, while maintaining physical distancing of course.”

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