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'The workplace of the immediate tomorrow': Reopening Austin offices plan for one-way foot traffic, sanitizing stations, distanced desks
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Consider the elevator. Commercial ones are typically between five and eight feet square, according to the Elevator Lab, meaning only one person can be inside while also observing social distancing guidelines. In a busy office building, with rush hour elevator traffic at the start and end of the workday, this poses a challenge. During a pandemic, it gets worse.
"Man, this one's been really tough," said Tim Hendricks, senior vice president of Cousins Properties' Austin office, during a webinar hosted by the Austin Chamber of Commerce last week.
Elevator protocol is just one of the many questions facing businesses as they decide whether to reopen their offices at limited capacity, now that the governor has given the green light to do so. Other concerns include temperature checks, one-way foot traffic, liability and masking requirements.
Cousins, a real estate firm, surveyed its Austin tenants—some 185 businesses with offices in the central business district and at the Domain—about their reopening plans and heard a wide range of responses. "We do think that the majority of our customers will be phasing in in some kind of staggered process," Hendricks said during the webinar.
This is the case for STG Design, a commercial architecture and interior design firm. Its Austin office is home to 80 employees and will begin a phased reopening June 1, associate principal Paul LaBrant said.
Initially, employees will return to the office at a scheduled time to clean their desk and clear out any personal items. In mid-June, employees will be able to return based on their assignments. "It is very much on a voluntary basis," LaBrant said.
In preparation, STG is marking the floor with arrows to help staff adjust to one-direction foot traffic, setting up sanitation stations and blocking off certain desks to allow for social distancing. The company will also offer employees virtual walkthroughs of the updated office. "So they're not having to figure it out once they get there," LaBrant said.
As STG prepares for its own reopening, its staff is also considering how this pandemic will change office design—and is working with its clients to help them make the shift. "The workplace of today is not going to work for the workplace of the immediate tomorrow," LaBrant said.
He foresees offices becoming more limited in both size and scope—offering a hub for innovation and meetings—as teleworking becomes more routine. Part of this change, he said, is because employees with children will likely be unable to come into the office for many months as schools and camps continue to adjust their operations. But it is also the result of new priorities.
"The American work culture has always been work first, family second," LaBrant said. "Now I think we are forced into seeing that our lives matter as much as the work that we do, and there's going to be a balance there."
While STG will begin its reopening next month, some of its local clients are planning to stay home through November—"just because they want to see how other companies do this, and they're still seeing productivity … while their teams are working from home," LaBrant said.
For those companies that do reopen in the coming days and weeks, communication will be paramount.
"The best defense for liability for your business or your company is going to be a well-crafted, comprehensive return-to-office plan that is vigorously followed at your place of business," said Pamela Madere, a real estate attorney at Jackson Walker's Austin office, during the same webinar.
Such a plan—if developed in accordance with CDC guidelines—will help employees know what to do and protect employers from lawsuits. It may also come in handy if COVID-19 cases spike.
"We really want to be ready for a future outbreak," Madere said. "We know it's coming at some point."
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.