There are no plans to temporarily shut down Portsmouth Naval Shipyard after a civilian employee died on Sunday due to complications associated with COVID-19.
U.S. Navy officials announced on Monday that the employee was assigned to Submarine Maintenance Engineering, Planning and Procurement Activity at the shipyard, which is located across the border from New Hampshire in Kittery, Maine. There are approximately 220 civilian personnel assigned to SUBMEPP.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends and coworkers of the deceased during this difficult time,” officials wrote in their post.
No other information about the employee was provided.
On Wednesday, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s Deputy Public Affairs Officer said there are no plans to close or cease operations.
“At the forefront of every decision is the protection of those aboard Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as we continue our mission-essential work to deliver submarines to the fleet. The Shipyard has no plans to close or cease operations,” Gary Hildreth said.
Hildreth said that for reasons pertaining to operational security, he could not say how many employees at the shipyard have tested positive for coronavirus.
The Navy publishes overall numbers and posts them on a blog.
“PNSY will continue to communicate internally and follow CDC guidelines for self-isolation, cleanliness of workspaces and direct notification of any personnel who have had close, personal contact with an individual testing positive,” Hildreth said.
Hildreth explained that multiple COVID-19 mitigation measures are being taken.
“Our submarine maintenance teams are cleaning ship handrails, ladders, etc. multiple times daily. Rubber gloves have been made available for the workforce to wear while accessing or egressing the submarines. Bulk ordered hand sanitizer bottles and full-service hand sanitizer stations have been deployed across the shipyard. Over three thousand personal masks have been manufactured on yard and distributed to the workforce,” Hildreth said.
Hildreth said that since the beginning of their COVID-19 response, shipyard leadership has maximized telework, remote work and use of administrative leave in the interest of safety of the entire shipyard.“Our goal is to minimize the spread of COVID-19, while maximizing the execution of our mission,” Hildreth said.
Richard Smith, president of the Portsmouth Federal Employees Metal Trades Council, said on Wednesday that management and labor union officials are working well together to talk about “What-ifs?”
One of the topics that was brought up was the idea of temporarily closing the shipyard, but Smith said they really cannot do that if they are to keep up with production demands.
Smith says even though they have to work as a team, essential employees are able to socially distance themselves and stay safe while on duty.
“We’ve made major steps to make sure that does happen. In their break rooms, they are only allowed so many people per break room. Only so many people can go down to the boat. We have to mandatorily wear masks now when we are on the boat,” Smith said.
The Portsmouth Federal Employees Metal Trades Council at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard represents nine local unions and about 4,000 members, Smith said.
The shipyard has approximately 7,500 civilian employees and 1,000 military personnel.
U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., both offered their condolences to shipyard workers and the COVID-19 victim’s family when asked for comment on Wednesday.
Shaheen said shipyard workers are rightfully concerned about their health and safety.
“The operations of the shipyard are important to national security, yet I urge Navy leadership to take all necessary precautions to protect the health of shipyard workers,” Shaheen said.
Shaheen has reached out to Navy officials to relay community concerns and inquire about the Navy’s latest mitigation measures, according to her staff.
Hassan said the shipyard’s workforce is second-to-none and that she is profoundly grateful for all they do to keep the country safe.
“I have spoken with the shipyard’s leadership about the need for robust measures to protect the shipyard’s workers and ongoing transparent communications with its workforce, and I will keep pushing the Department of Defense to do everything it can to protect these workers and their critical national security mission,” Hassan said.
It is not believed that the shipyard employee who died is from New Hampshire.
In 2018, there were 2,635 Granite Staters employed at the shipyard. A majority of civilian employees live in Maine, according to the Seacoast Shipyard Association.
Of the two COVID-19 deaths reported by the Navy, both were civilian employees.