COVID-19 at the Department of Commerce
Published: April 23, 2020
Several programs under Commerce, specifically at the Census Bureau, USPTO and NOAA, face changes in operations and processes due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
- Commerce has created COVID-19 task forces at the department and each of its bureau levels to conduct daily operational decisions for the agency related to COVID-19.
- Changes in Commerce programs due to COVID-19 primarily take place at the department’s bureaus such as Census, USPTO and NOAA.
- The CARES Act allocates nearly $1.9B in additional FY 2020 funding, largely to provide assistance to state and local economic programs as well as small businesses.
- Thus far, Commerce reports nearly $36M in spending, chiefly for IT and professional services related to COVID-19.
The Department of Commerce performs a wide-range of tasks for the U.S. - conducting the Decennial Census, overseeing ocean and coastal navigation, providing weather services, setting national tech standards, approving patent and trademark applications – and the list could go on. Like so many of its fellow agencies, Commerce operations and programs face interruptions caused by the ongoing pandemic.
According to the Commerce coronavirus site set-up for employees, department-wide mandatory telework began on March 16, with agency contractors advised to work closely with contracting officers and program offices to expand telework flexibilities and provide contract extensions when possible. In his correspondence with department employees, Secretary Wilbur Ross alludes to COVID-19 task forces instituted at department and bureau levels, who are continually making operational decisions for the agency related to COVID-19.
When identifying the impact of COVID-19 on Commerce operations, a look at additional funding and related spending provides only a little insight. Carving out the greatest effects of COVID-19 on Commerce operations comes down to examining alterations made at the bureau and program division levels. In this piece, we will examine the changes that have taken place at Commerce’s largest agencies (by budget dollars) in response to the novel coronavirus: the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Bureau of Census and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The USPTO is an agency known for having an advanced telework program among its employees. Despite this, the COVID-19 situation presents challenges to the daily tasks and processes within the bureau. For instance, USPTO is waiving its only regulatory requirement for an original handwritten signature in certain payments, authorizing copies of handwritten signatures instead. Additionally, in-person meetings, such as hearings and examiner interviews, are conducted virtually by phone or video.
Moreover, the USPTO is allowing extensions on deadlines to file certain patent and trademark-related documents, and waiving required fees, to applicants or patent owners negatively affected by the outbreak. For example, petition fees associated with patent or trademark applications categorized as abandoned or terminated due to lack of timely reply to office communications will be waived.
Suspended since March, in-person field operations for the 2020 Census is now expected to resume on June 1. Despite a built-in buffer of time to complete the decadal survey and submit data to the President by December 31, as dictated by law, bureau officials are requesting extensions on statuary due dates for the 2020 Census. The Census Bureau is seeking an additional 120 days to deliver final counts, allowing field data collection and self-response to extend to October 31 and counts delivered to the President by April 30, 2021.
COVID-19 circumstances are also adding tasks to the normal operations of the Census Bureau. Due to its unprecedented nature, the bureau is launching two new experimental surveys to observe the social and economic impact of COVID-19 over the next three months. The Small Business Pulse Survey will collect survey data on “location closings, changes in employment, disruptions in the supply chain, the use of federal assistance programs, and expectations concerning future operations.” The Household Pulse Survey will document “temporal trends in how individuals are experiencing business curtailment and closures, stay-at-home orders, school closures, changes in the availability of consumer goods and consumer patterns, and other abrupt and significant changes to American life.”
NOAA’s wingspan stretches across six different line offices, in addition to NOAA-wide staff offices. Accordingly, NOAA established several COVID-19 teams in response to the pandemic. The After Action Reporting/Lessons Learned Unit seeks to determine the best approach to collecting lessons learned across NOAA in response to COVID-19, eventually creating new processes for improved responses in the future. At the National Marine Fisheries Service, the NOAA Fisheries COVID-19 Strategy Team stood up a group of experts to analyze the impacts of COVID-19 on the U.S. commercial seafood industry. The National Ocean Service (NOS) activated the NOS Disaster Preparedness Program to collect information on NOS impacts to personnel, mission, and infrastructure related to COVID-19.
From an operational standpoint, NOAA is directly working with contractors and other partners to help mitigate negative impacts from the virus. For instance, NOAA invited contractors to report work that cannot be performed via telework or safely at facilities to track projects hindered by COVID-19. Further, NOAA’s Grants Management Division (GMD) is authorizing several extensions and exceptions for grant recipients and awards. NOAA Fisheries issued an emergency action to waive certain trainings and program requirements to fishermen and observers.
Cares Act Funding
As a whole, Commerce received $1.9B in additional FY 2020 funding from the CARES Act, albeit a majority of that funding designated for state and local economic programs as well as small business entities:
- $1.5B for the Economic and Development Administration (EDA) towards state and community grants in Economic Development Assistance Programs
- $33M for EDA towards additional oversight and administration activities
- $300M for NOAA as direct financial assistance to all fishers and related participants
- $50M for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership to distribute to small- and medium-sized manufacturers
- $20M for NOAA for the continuity of mission-critical operations such as the National Weather Service
- $10M for the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceutical to improve readiness in domestic biopharmaceutical manufacturing
- $10M for the Minority Business Development Agency to distribute to minority business centers
- $6M for the National Institute of Standards and Technology to support research and measurement activities related to coronavirus testing capabilities and diagnostics
Reported spending reveals almost $36M in related COVID spending by Commerce. Much of the spending resides in contractor-provided services, versus products, to help Commerce cope with the ongoing crisis.
- The $32.5M under Information Technology increases task order value and exercises option 2 in the contract between the Census Bureau and CDW Government for mobile devices for the decennial survey
- Obligations reported under Professional Services encompass the following:
- $1.5M for Software-as-a-Service for the Coronavirus Rapid Response Survey at Census, likely issued for the new COVID-19 surveys announced by the bureau
- $1.2M towards extended scanner and sorter support for the Field IT Deployment task order for the 2020 Census
- $149K for lodging of crew members of various NOAA ships during COVID-19 stand downs
- Obligations under Operations & Maintenance reflects a task order for Stationary Engineers at NIST