Inside the Browns' gradual return to their facilities

The new normal for a small group of Browns employees began Monday.

After weeks of researching, planning and listening to health experts and government recommendations, the Browns opened their doors to a handful of executives on the football and business side of the building as well as some other employees whose jobs do not translate as well as others to working from home as part of Phase I of a return to facilities. Those workers were greeted with a much different set-up that included temperature checks, different ways of navigating the office and much more as the organization looks to maintain a safe and healthy environment.

"We're a people business. Whether that's employees, whether that's the players, whether it's the fans, whether it's the community, everything we focus on is about people," said Mike Nikolaus, Browns Chief Human Resources Officer. "We're working with University Hospitals, we're working with what Governor Mike DeWine is doing, what the public officials are recommending. We're doing everything we can to have a clean, healthy, sanitized facility for people to come in and continue to work.

"Our main goal and everything we do and any decision we make is what's best for our employees and what's best for our families."

During Phase 1, NFL teams are permitted to welcome up to 75 staff members into their team facilities. That total does not include coaches and players — outside of those who are rehabbing injuries. For the Browns, that number spans both the team facility in Berea and FirstEnergy Stadium. It also includes outside contractors.

Phase 2 and 3 could be in the near future, but there are no set dates as of yet. The latest information and developments regarding to COVID-19, which has sickened millions around the world and killed more than 100,000 in the U.S., are ever-changing, and the Browns are poised to adjust their long-term plans accordingly.

"You've heard the words 'it's fluid' a thousand times throughout this, but it's fluid," Nikolaus said. "You're getting new information every day, so being able to adapt and being ready for Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3, having that playbook ready so when we start getting that new information, we're ready to adapt to that."

The Browns have worked closely with University Hospitals, their official healthcare partner, since the infant stages of the pandemic. The team consulted with doctors and other health experts from UH when it made the decision to close the team facility to all employees in mid-March and have continued the conversation during the weeks and months it took to reach a point where it was safe enough to return some employees to the workplace. In recent weeks, UH released its "Healthy Restart Playbook," which is available for free to any business owner or operator looking to re-open his or her workplace in the safest possible fashion.

Dr. James Voos, the Browns' head team physician and UH's Chairman of its Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, was on-site at the Berea facility Monday and led staff through the numerous changes that will become their new normal.

When employees arrive at the facility, they are guided to a specific entrance instead of the numerous entrances of the past. There, they will be checked in for the day, have their temperature taken and answer a series of questions about their current symptoms and symptoms of those at their homes. Employees are advised not to come to the office if they or anyone in their home is feeling under the weather. Once they enter the building, they are required to wear masks at all times with the exception of when they are alone in their respective offices.

That checkpoint is the first of many locations throughout the facilities that provide hand sanitizer. They are checkered all throughout the buildings, giving employees the ability to quickly scrub away germs at all points during the day.

To eliminate potential breaches of the recommended 6 feet of social distancing between employees, the Browns essentially turned their stairways into one-way streets, marking them as either "up" or "down" pathways. New signs dot the entire building and provide instruction on which direction to walk in certain hallways.

Work stations have been spread out, giving employees plenty of space between themselves and their co-workers. Plexiglass has been placed at the top of all work stations for further protection.

Touchless water stations were added throughout the facility, allowing employees to access water without worrying about the spread of germs. Communal refrigerators and water fountains have been eliminated. The remaining sinks that didn't already have touchless sinks and soap dispensers now do.

All offices now come with capacity limits, most of which are set at "1." The team's Jim Brown Board Room, which previously sat up to 30 people in comfortable fashion, now has a capacity of six.

"The Browns organization, the NFL, University Hospitals and all of our infectious disease partners have worked collaboratively," Voos said. "The Browns organization has gone out of its way to make sure this is the safest work environment possible with employees safety in mind."

That will continue as more and more employees eventually return to the facility, including the players at some point. Their work areas will be under the same scrutiny, and that goes all the way down to the new artificial turf in the field house.

Senior Vice President of Player Health and Development Joe Sheehan was designated as the team's "Infection Control Officer," a position required by all NFL teams as the league moves forward with its plans to play in 2020.

"A lot of the transition is going to depend on broader league guidelines and when it's safe for buildings to reopen and what it's like when players come back in," Sheehan said. "It's really making sure you're providing the safest environment for your players to participate when they do get back."

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