UN prepares to reopen, with New York taking slowest approach

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Staff place floor signs to promote social distancing at the entrance of the General Assembly building at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Photo by: Manual Elias / U.N.

NEW YORK — The United Nations is preparing to bring more workers back to its offices in Europe and New York over the next few weeks — but workspaces will look quite different from how many staffers left their desks in mid-March, when COVID-19 case numbers began to quickly rise.

Can the UN establish a virtual new normal?

COVID-19 has changed the way the United Nations conducts its business. The transition from large conference rooms to Zoom meetings has been bumpy and wrought with transparency concerns, U.N. observers say.

In New York, regulations limiting elevator capacity to two people at a time are already in place, and the U.N. Secretariat lobby’s checkered tiles are adorned with stickers directing people to keep six feet apart from one another at all times. All service counters have plexiglass barriers, and there are new maps inside the building that show hand sanitizer locations.

And even once U.N. staffers return to the headquarters and offices in Vienna, they will be asked to skip in-person meetings and continue communicating largely via the Zoom and Microsoft Teams platforms.

“We did not want the U.N. to become a hot spot within a hot spot. And we really were very determined to be good neighbors. On the closing, we were very cautious. And on the reopening, we continue to be cautious, and we are not going to go ahead of whatever the situation and the rules and regulations are for the city and for the state,” U.N. Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told Devex.

Reopening procedures vary across the U.N. offices of Geneva, Vienna, and New York, reflecting the severity of the pandemic in each location and the local and national government response in containing the crisis.

Only 200 essential people, ranging from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed to custodians and electricians, now go to the U.N. headquarters each day. That marks a drastic fall from the 11,000 staffers, journalists, government delegates, and others who would visit the midtown Manhattan complex each day before it closed on March 16.

New York City has seen 211,000 coronavirus cases and 22,000 deaths, but the initial hot spot has seen a steep decline in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths since the peak in April. Some offices in the city began to reopen earlier this month.

The U.N. headquarters reopening will happen much more gradually than the initial sudden closure, said Dujarric and Andrew Nye, chief of the U.N.’s Facilities and Commercial Activities Service.

Earlier this month, Guterres extended telecommuting as an option for most staff until the end of July. A team of senior managers will soon make a recommendation to Guterres on next steps. But the reopening process is likely to be slow, with public visitors being the last to return to the building.

A partial reopening at the end of July could see another 200 people back at their desks. Masks will be required within the building, except when people are stationed at their desks, and meetings will continue to happen virtually, Nye said. Phase two will involve up to 40% occupancy at U.N. headquarters.

“We'll be cautious, you know, and I think we're taking it slow. No one knows what the situation will be like in September, October, November. So we're taking it one step, one month at a time,” Dujarric said. “Are people going to be comfortable going back to work? What will the state of child care and schools be in New York? All of those factors will weigh heavily on what the population of the building will look like.”

The U.N. General Assembly hall is the only room at headquarters that could accommodate a large number of people — 193 — and also meet social-distancing guidelines from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Nye.

“We did not want the U.N. to become a hot spot within a hot spot. And we really were very determined to be good neighbors.”

— Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson, U.N.

“It means that in many of the conference rooms, we could only occupy every third seat, for example. That puts very, very severe restraints on the kinds of meetings that can take place at the U.N.,” Nye said.

At the U.N. offices in Geneva and Vienna, reopening plans are further along, reflecting the regions’ relative containment of the virus. Since May, Switzerland has had fewer than 100 new COVID-19 cases per day for about two months and has eased all social-distancing restrictions, except for a ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Austria has also had low daily infection numbers for the last two months and will soon allow indoor events of up to 250 people.

Geneva offices are already in their second phase of reopening, which allows for 30% of the 3,800 U.N. personnel to return to their offices if they choose. So far, only about 15% to 18% of staffers have chosen to commute to work.

Face masks are not required within the Palais des Nations but will be a regular fixture during Human Rights Council meetings, given the number of people often in the room, according to Alessandra Vellucci, director of the U.N. Information Service at Geneva. Video and audio journalists are among the visitors who have been allowed into the Palais des Nations to record media briefings.

In early July, protocol will allow for 60% of Geneva staff to work from the offices. The return will no longer be voluntary if managers request in-person activity.

“We want to go gradually, and we also have to see the evolution of the pandemic. For the moment, it is going very well. A lot of meetings are still virtual, and the rest, like press conferences, are hybrid — online and in person,” Vellucci said.

And in Vienna, 50% of the staff now have access to the building. All of the 5,000 staffers will be allowed to return starting Wednesday, according to Martin Nesirky, head of U.N. Information Service Vienna.

But Nesirky does not expect 100% of the staff to return to the building that day.

“There will continue to be people working remotely for a number of reasons, like preexisting health conditions and child care. But many people will be returning, and it has been done very gradually,” Nesirky said.

The building still does not feel quite the same as it did before the pandemic, according to Nesirky. The cafeteria has reduced seating and has adopted an alphabetical shift system for people to eat lunch. Few in-person meetings have been held, and while mask restrictions have eased in the building, people still must wear them when passing through security.

“It is the same building, of course, but it does have a different feel. I think people are generally keen to return to that social interaction which they have missed over these last three months,” Nesirky said. “But inevitably, some people are a little anxious. That is a fact, but I think the measures we have put in place are well positioned to find a new way of working.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.