‘Always wear your mask’: NN employees return to work; Nez outlines re-opening
As the Navajo Nation enters week 23 of its COVID-19 public health emergency, Navajo Nation employees, many of whom have been on paid administrative leave since March, were called back to work on Monday.
While the president’s office announced last Thursday that the Navajo Nation government was reopening, it might have felt like a shock for many employees who had little advance notice.
“Beginning today, there will be no more administrative leave and we are getting back to regular operation,” said President Jonathan Nez in a Facebook town hall with division directors Monday morning. “As we reopen the Navajo Nation, we urge everyone to follow the protocols and guidelines that are in place and take care of yourself and others in these unprecedented times.”
Nez said the reopening decisions were made based on careful data analysis.
“We spent many weeks working together with the health care experts and many others to develop the phased-in reopening plan,” Nez stated in a press release. “We have had 48 consecutive days with less than 100 reported daily cases of COVID-19, and 13 consecutive days under 50 daily cases.”
Jill Jim, head of the Department of Health and the Health Command Operations Center, said that the “reopening gating criteria,” based on measures including the rate of new COVID-19 cases, testing availability, and hospital and ICU capacity, were developed with the Navajo Nation Epidemiology Department, the Indian Health Service and tribal health organizations.
While the COVID-19 numbers on the Nation have been steadily dropping, there has yet to be a consistent daily decline with no rebounds for an extended period of time.
Nez said wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands, and staying home as much as possible helped to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases.
He emphasized those measures will continue to be enforced as the Nation re-opens.
The executive branch has released “Navajo Nation COVID-19 Worksite Safety Guidelines” for government employees, which outline basic employee and workplace COVID-19 safety protocols.
Per the plan, each division’s re-occupancy procedures are dictated by its particular needs and circumstances. The bulk of the responsibility falls on each division director.
Separately, the “Navajo Nation Reopening Plan,” also released last Thursday, is a guide to safely reopening Navajo businesses.
This plan, which includes a color-coded system indicating level of safety restrictions, is determined by the Health Command Operations Center. The current status is Code “Orange” (moderate-high restrictions), which means most businesses can open at 25% occupancy, dining and financial institutions can offer drive-thru service, and barber shops/hair salons can open by appointment only.
Casinos, youth programs, museums, flea and roadside markets, gyms, recreation facilities and movie theaters remain closed.
Businesses and government offices will have to provide special accommodations for employees who are vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, Personal Protective Equipment such as masks, sanitizers and cleaning supplies, social distancing protocols, regular COVID-19 screening and/or testing, COVID-19 training, and instructions for how to respond to cases of COVID-19 in the workplace.
Additionally, they will need to consider implementing measures such as increasing facility ventilation, installing safety barriers like plexiglass, and allowing flexible and alternative work schedules such as staggered work hours and telecommuting.
Division of Economic Development Director JT Willie emphasized that the 25 percent capacity restriction, per the Orange status, only applies to the business sector, not to the Navajo Nation government, and that all businesses have to comply with Centers for Disease Control and HCOC guidelines.
He confirmed that tribal parks and marinas are also authorized to reopen, with safety restrictions, to Navajo citizens. Outside visitors and tourists still are not allowed to travel on the Nation.
Willie explained that some government buildings are only allowing employees to come in and that people seeking services can call in advance to make an appointment.
“We have to stay vigilant,” said Jim. “We have to continue to practice preventative measures, such as social distancing, washing our hands, cleaning and disinfecting high-touched surfaces, and wearing our face masks. These basic precautions will limit the spread of COVID-19 and facilitate reopening safely.”
Vice President Myron Lizer said that until a safe treatment or a vaccine for COVID-19 is available, people will have to adapt to the risks associated with the coronavirus.
“We all have to follow public health guidelines and use our best judgment to protect ourselves, our relatives and neighbors, and vulnerable individuals,” he said.
No office gatherings
President Nez advised that employees should avoid traveling off-reservation during their down time.
“Protect yourself at all times, be aware of your surroundings, follow the guidelines,” he said. “If you catch the virus and bring it to your workplace, you’re not just putting yourself at risk, you’re putting the whole organization at risk.”
Nez also urged employees to be truthful and report to management if they are sick or have been exposed to COVID-19 and could potentially compromise their workplace and their colleagues.
By the same token, he encouraged managers to take time to listen to employee concerns.
“Managers, I respectfully ask you to treat your employees the way you want to be treated,” said Nez. “Work together and help each other out during these trying times. We are going into uncharted territory here.”
He encouraged those employees with children at home to work with their managers on accommodations, especially since day care centers on the Navajo Nation are still closed and many children are beginning online schooling.
Nez stressed that wearing masks to prevent the spread of the virus is critically important.
“Always wear your mask, no matter where you’re at,” he said. “If you are clocked in on the Navajo Nation, you are required to wear a mask at all times.”
He discouraged eating and drinking around other people or in a group at work, which requires removal of masks.
“As long as you follow the public health protocols, you will be safe,” said Nez.
Jim encouraged employees to take personal responsibility in terms of staying safe.
“It’s up to each of us,” she said.
Jim explained that the HCOC is still operational and that any COVID-19 cases or exposures need to be reported there (phone number below).
She stressed that employees should not be congregating or having office parties or luncheons, and that workspaces might need to be reconfigured to accommodate social distancing.
OSHA spot checks
Human Resources Division Director Perphelia Fowler said that every division is making sure they have the appropriate PPEs, and is implementing COVID-19 screenings like temperature checks.
“Most importantly, we want to make sure that we provide a safe environment for our employees,” she said.
Fowler confirmed that no office parties are permitted and they are closing off all kitchenette and lounge areas. She urged employees to continue to use teleconference meetings instead of in-person meetings.
“Those are all part of the new process and work environment that we are facing,” said Fowler.
Fowler said the Navajo Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Public Safety personnel will be going around to Navajo Nation offices and buildings to do safety checks.
“We’re just taking precautionary measures to make sure you are wearing your masks, and staying six feet apart,” she said. “If there is office reconfiguration that needs to happen, they will inform us.”
Fowler said travel restrictions are still in place and she encourages all employees to be truthful about their whereabouts and quarantine if they have travelled to hotspots.
For those who are directly impacted by the virus, 120 days of COVID-19 leave are available, she said.
Telecommuting policies and flexible work schedules are also in place, as needed or required.
She requested all employees work closely with their supervisors, program managers and division directors and call Human Resources if they have questions.
“We’re going back into this reopening gradually by phases,” she said. “We don’t want everyone back to 100% today.”
Safer at home
Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen McPaul explained that the new Public Health Emergency Order 2020-021, issued on Sunday, rescinds the “stay at home” (shelter-in-place) order and implements a “safer at home” public health order.
The new order allows for “drive-in” gatherings with safety restrictions, extends daily and weekend curfew hours (9 p.m. to 5 a.m.) and says that Navajo Nation roads remain closed to visitors and tourists for the duration of the public health emergency.
The modified 32-hour Saturday-through-Monday weekend curfew is still in place through Aug. 24, according to the NDOH website.
“The public health order does not require individuals to stay home, but we continue to encourage Navajo residents to limit their travels and leave their place of residence only for emergencies or to perform essential activities and errands,” stated Nez.
Information: www.ndoh.navajo-nsn.gov/COVID-19, www.navajoreopening.navajo-nsn.gov or HCOC hotline at 928-871-7014.