Berkeley reopens research facilities, with guidance from public health officials

Campus leaders joined Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz Tuesday to discuss what campus research will look like in the fall. (UC Berkeley video)

Campus research buildings, shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, are slowly, safely reopening, and officials expect to welcome back researchers to more than two dozen buildings by the end of June.

During an hourlong Campus Conversations Tuesday, Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz was joined by biochemistry professor Susan Marqusee, Associate Dean of Social Sciences Maximilian Auffhammer and Vice Chancellor of Administration Marc Fisher, to field questions about health and safety concerns and plans to reopen research buildings on campus amid the continuing pandemic.

So far, Berkeley has reopened 15 of its more than 80 campus research buildings, Katz said.
While Berkeley cannot yet accommodate its 1,500 faculty and 11,500 graduate and postdoctoral students, Katz said a total of 30 buildings could be open by the end of the month, with the possibility of more, depending on the rate at which the coronavirus spreads.

“The city of Berkeley’s overarching goal is to maintain low population density outside of the home,” Katz said. “So, what we did is prioritize those laboratory-intensive buildings first.”

Marqusee, a member of a campus task force focused on developing guidelines to reopen labs on campus, said protocol was created for each research building individually, based on feedback from faculty, department chairs and people who work in each facility.

Campuswide, Marqusee said, Berkeley’s research workforce is currently operating at 20%.

Fisher said Berkeley’s facilities staff have ramped up cleaning standards by cleaning buildings twice a day. Berkeley also plans to hire 100 additional custodians, said Fisher, but external forces, such as a flare-up of the virus, could cause the campus to ramp down access to newly reopened research facilities.

“Remembering back to the spring, the Berkeley campus moved before the local health authority or the state, and that was really based on our campus researchers and looking at the mathematics of the virus and saying, ‘This thing is going to spread in this fashion,’” Fisher recalled. “In the fall, if we see similar conditions, we’d have those conversations again.”

Katz added, though, that if coronavirus infections were to decrease, the campus could also increase the number of people on campus to conduct research.

A recent donation to Berkeley gifted 120,000 face coverings, branded with the Cal logo, to the campus community.

While Auffhammer said wearing face coverings on campus is essential to help negate the spread of the virus, sheltering in place is the best way.

“We have been mindful that the person that is asking for access actually wants access,” said Auffhammer. “There’s still no vaccine. Staying at home is something that, if you can do it, you should do it, and you’re not going to see any pressure to return to campus if you don’t have to.”

For more information on Berkeley’s research recovery efforts visit Berkeley’s research website here.