Last Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey announced a new “Safer at Home” order to replace her March “Stay at Home” order. The new edict relaxed some of the restrictions put into place to help flatten the curve of infection caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
It allowed more businesses to open Monday, as long as they adhere to policies put forth by the CDC, the Alabama Department of Public Health and federal guidelines to ensure the wellness and safety of their customers.
Redstone Arsenal has stood in solidarity with the cities of Huntsville and Madison, and the dozens of communities from which they draw their 40,000-plud daily workforce. They began synchronizing their COVID-19-related policies to mirror those of the communities surrounding them. From six feet apart social distancing to closing all nonessential businesses and activities and enforcing the wearing of face masks when out in public; the arsenal garrison has also kept a watchful eye on hospital treatment capabilities in Huntsville, Athens, and Florence.
Key to their commitment to the people of Huntsville, Redstone Arsenal relies as much on bed space, personal protection equipment, and other mission essential capabilities as the communities that support them.
Redstone Arsenal has about 7.8 million square feet of administrative or office space and the workforce shares common-use space.
What has life been like on Redstone Arsenal, and how will it look beginning May 19 going forward?
“Some of the steps we’ve taken are very similar to what businesses around the community are doing, as well as what the governor has suggested,” said Redstone Arsenal Garrison Commander Col. Kelsey A. Smith. “We did occupational health assessments of our buildings with the intent of spacing people out and creating that six-foot physical distance between people.
“We have gone through with our contracting partners to clean all that workspace and disinfect those areas, and we put up signs that designate when that cubicle or those offices were last cleaned. The idea being to allay workforce concern as they come into work.”
Smith said their intent has been to minimize the workforce’s opportunity to gather in large groups, leading to the closing of all dining facilities except for take-out. MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Benefits) runs the cafeterias, sports facilities and activities, the Pagano Gym, Redstone Arsenal Links at Redstone golf course, as well as the Automotive Skills Center.
The garrison closed the Auto Skills Center and golf course to minimize their interactions. Golf, Smith said, is a socially distancing sport but, for every person that comes onto the course, there are still 20 people at work who are exposed.
“For me to move workforce out of harm’s way, we minimized the workforce and reduced both ancillary and amenity benefits and trimmed ourselves down to mission essentials,” he said.
“I would tell you that like any businessman or woman, I would certainly like to open up my revenue-generating organizations. But my first job is to protect the health, safety, security and welfare of the population, no matter how much we want to get out and play golf or go bowling.
“Until we see this virus isn’t virulently spreading, and we can actually bring people together in groups of greater than 10 without that happening, I will be reticent to opening up any MWR on the installation.”
He said for essential face-to-face customer service benefits where a customer and an employee come into direct contact and can’t keep a 6-foot distance, they have installed plexiglass shields.
As some restrictions were lifted Monday, Smith said they will begin a conditions-based but methodical four-phase plan to reopening.
“We will provide some goal-setting of increasing to 25 to 35 percent of the population; 40 to 45 percent in phase two; then 60 to 75 percent,” he said. “We may begin restoring ancillary benefits that support our mission-essential functions, but that will depend on our constant monitoring how the virus performs within the entire community.”
He said they are providing some goals for tenants to attain if they need to. Included in those are teleworkers.
“Telework has become much more effectual, especially since we brought some systems onboard for the Army that allow as to be more cooperative at a distance” Smith said. “We may not see the same growth we might have seen before because we can still get the outputs we’re looking for with a more reduced footprint.
“I’m not saying those jobs disappear, but we may be able to see multiple days of telework for an employee versus five days a week on the arsenal.
“What we have laid out is a template for all the tenants based on what the installation can provide, so we’re looking forward to tenants providing us with their growth template. That will allow me to look at the demand so we can produce the capacity to do that.
“We know our workforce is going to go home at night. They are going to go to Lowe’s. They are going to go eat at a restaurant. They may even come onto contact with the virus, so we need to monitor what we consider the enemy – COVID-19 – and make sure we don’t expose too much of the population too quickly.”
Smith said despite Ivey’s most recent statement, he doesn’t expect to see significant growth.
“I wouldn’t expect to see significant growth until we hit phase two and then we may see a 25 percent growth in the number of personnel, we bring on the Arsenal,” he said. “We bring on about 10,000 people now and by phase two, we may see as many as 20,000 individuals trying to come in, but we will work out capacity ahead of time to be able to deal with that throughput.”
He also likes the idea of wearing the masks because it reminds others, they are doing something for a reason.
Cloth face masks will be required at some places, even after reopening, especially to enter the commissary, PX or any of the public facilities, but each entity will have their own restrictions.
“I caution our tenants that all the custodians don’t walk around with every organization’s specific limitations so different buildings may have different restrictions.” he said. “You may require a face mask at our facilities but not at another. On some installations I’ve seen screening stations at the entrances of the installation, in front of the PX and the commissary, et cetera; but we found that to be ineffectual unless it is controlled or administered by a health official, so that would really just cost us additional people.
“If an organization wants to do it, I support it, but we’re not going to provide them the manpower to do it. Our custodians have to be able to get into your building to clean so as long as your organization is in compliance, we are unified on that.”
Meanwhile, construction on the arsenal has continued to soldier on.
“We have (construction) schedules we have to maintain to bring capabilities into play in the future. That means what we do affects a contractor and their ability to come to work,” Smith said.
“The FBI and Redstone projects have not had a slowdown. Contractors are coming onto the installation, they are doing a very good job of screening their own folks, using much the same policies we have: if you are sick, stay at home. Don’t come to work if you think you might have encountered someone infected.”
All the job sites are up and running and you can see it at Redstone Gateway where buildings are continuing to sprout up.
On the secure side, once you enter through Gate 9 on the left, work is continuing. Also, at Gate 9 headed south on the right as drivers gain access to I-565, there is a lot of prep work for more construction activity, and they will be working the last week of May to get it repaved.
He said in many cases, the traffic slowdown has allowed them to take advantage of opportunities to pave roads such as Patton Roade.
“We have closed Gate 3 in the vicinity of Redstone Road to Hays Farm because we didn’t need that access,” Smith said. “That closure has allowed us to do quite a bit of the paving out there, and it looks like the demand doesn’t require us to get back in Gate 3 until mid-May or late May when we’ll be able to complete that.
“I’d like to say the Zierdt Road project has moved forward a lot, but the reduction in traffic has certainly allowed it to continue moving steadily forward.”
Smith said they are tracking the number of COVID-19 cases on the arsenal, but DoD doesn’t allow him to share those numbers because they are reported with the city’s numbers through the Alabama Department of Public Health.
“I can tell you that all but about one-eighth of those we are tracking have recovered, and the remainder of them remain in quarantine,” he said. “None have been hospitalized.
“Something gets lost when you follow the daily ticker tape of the overall numbers. I would like to be able to see alongside those numbers, the recovery rate because that would be helpful and maybe provide some encouragement to the population. We are tracking very closely, the local case rate. If we report today, we have 14 cases, but yesterday we had 20 and tomorrow we only have 10, that signifies what we’re doing is working well.”