‘Don’t panic’ — Perdue details USDA’s virus plans

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Department of Agriculture is letting employees in some offices work from home amid concerns about the novel coronavirus, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said today.

At a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Perdue said the department approved telecommuting for USDA workers in Seattle, where there’s been an outbreak of the illness. But a request from a more distant Forest Service site wasn’t approved, he said.

“As you know, we’ve got a lot of people who depend on USDA on a daily basis, from farmers and ranchers to consumers out here, and we have to carry on our work,” Perdue said at the hearing on his department’s fiscal 2021 budget request.

Decisions about telecommuting are just part of the response for USDA, which employs more than 100,000 people around the country, Perdue said. The request from Seattle employees was approved because of the outbreak in that area, while for the Forest Service office, 50 miles away with no outbreak, Perdue told the panel, “We said, ‘Just sit back and relax a little bit.'”

Officials are preparing for broader impacts at the department, Perdue said, including testing computer systems to make sure they’re ready for a potential onslaught of remote workers.

“Our motto is be prepared, and don’t panic,” Perdue said.

The hearing itself saw an impact of the spreading concerns over coronavirus: Ranking Republican Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska stayed home ill, said panel Chairman Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.). He didn’t elaborate on the nature of Fortenberry’s illness but said the congressman apologized “profusely” for missing the hearing and stayed home out of caution.

The illness is having other impacts at USDA, including on access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and school nutrition programs. States are free to temporarily lift work requirements in certain cases for food stamps, Perdue said, if a two-week quarantine would risk the loss of benefits.

And officials are temporarily easing requirements for congregate meals in the school program, Perdue said, as that runs counter to coronavirus precautions.

Under questioning from Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.), Perdue said there’s no evidence that the virus survives in the food supply.

“It really depends just on safe hygiene,” Perdue said. “You don’t want to be eating with someone that sneezes on your chicken and you eat it.”