Plastic shields, social distancing and remote work likely to outlive COVID-19 pandemic

National News

Border officials working on long-term plan to stem return of coronavirus and face future health emergencies

Cashier Nancy Alvarez wears a protective mask as she works behind a plastic shield at the Presidente Supermarket during the new coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 21, 2020, in Hialeah, Fla. All employees are required to wear masks which are provided by the company. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — COVID-19 is yet to peak in the borderlands, and local officials are focusing on pressing challenges like discouraging Mother’s Day gatherings that could boost the spread of the virus.

But as they emphasize social distancing and stepped-up testing, El Paso County officials are working behind the scenes on a long-term plan to drastically change the way government employees interact with each other and the public.

“We have to get into a different kind of mindset,” said Nicole Ruiz, public policy analyst for county government. “We have to reshape the future to protect the health of our employees when we do return to work.”

That includes not just encouraging clean desks, frequent handwashing and social distancing, but ultimately redesigning work areas, allowing some employees to continue working from home and the fostering of new habits.

“For example, it’s not just keeping 6 feet away from other employees; we’re recommending that instead of walking to another office to ask a question, send an email or make a phone call,” Ruiz said Monday at a briefing of the El Paso County Commissioners Court.

And while working remotely became a necessity after city and county issued stay-at-home orders, it could become a long-term opportunity to free up the office space to enable proper social distancing for those whose physical presence is required, she said.

The El Paso County Courthouse (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

Both County Judge Ricardo Samaniego and Commissioner Precinct 4 Carl Robinson are suggesting placing shields at cashier’s windows to protect both the customer as well as the employee. Some are already being used. “Shields seem to be non-intrusive. If that shield never came down, we would understand,” Samaniego said.

Other actions in the planning stage include the purchase of an adequate supply of masks and thermometers and the crafting of an “early warning” system that will allow the county judge to make quick, informed decisions to close departments or buildings should COVID-19 return or a new health emergency surfaces.

El Paso City-County Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said the latter is a possibility that cannot be overlooked.

“We continue to see a rise in the numbers; this pandemic is very dynamic in the way it behaves,” Ocaranza told the Commissioners Court. “Once we start seeing a decline we still have to be careful with the way we observe social distancing. […] This coming winter is flu season and people are susceptible. We can’t let our guard down.”

El Paso as of Sunday had confirmed 998 cases of COVID-19 and recorded 22 fatalities. Nearby Juarez, Mexico has had 400 cases and 80 deaths.

“We have a difficult situation ahead,” Samaniego said. “We have Mother’s Day and graduations coming up. […] Social gatherings is one of the most difficult things we are going to face. If you look at the numbers, We had Easter and then increase in deaths and so forth, so we are going to ask you to stay home.”

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