In a move to protect workers and the community, the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority voted to transition to Level 3 minimal essential operations at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead for at least the next two weeks.
During that time period, it will be up to Executive Director Mike Headley to decide if any projects will resume or if the facility will remain locked down except for maintenance work to keep the facility operational and make sure experiments at the underground laboratory remain safe.
Several employees have expressed concerns about coming to work due to the nature of their work and the fact that the work the lab completes often includes bringing in experts from all over the world. New guidance from OSHA also implied that employers have to provide a safe environment for workers in light of the pandemic or potentially face liability.
"As you know, face shields and respirators are in very short supply across the country," Headley said. "We always have a general responsibility to protect the health and safety of our staff and the surrounding area."
Headley said after two weeks some of the work at SURF might be able to continue, especially above ground.
Dr. Bob Wilson of Fort Collins, Colo., addressed the elephant in the room. The laboratory in Lead isn't the only site pursuing the same experimental results as the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (LBNF/DUNE). A Japanese group is also seeking some of the same results in the search for neutrinos and the study of proton decay.
"My leaning is to do whatever is necessary to stop this disease, but I also want to mitigate the effects on the lab," Dr. Wilson said Wednesday morning. "We are behind the eight ball in respect to timing, keeping funding flowing and building support for the project."
Dr. Wilson, who earned his Bachelor of Science degree in London, said he was concerned the LBNF/DUNE project might be "pipped to the post" — a British racing idiom that means narrowly defeated.
The members of the executive committee who drafted the resolution said they had considered all of those factors before making the recommendation.
Board Chair Casey Peterson of Rapid City said they weighed the science against the safety of the employees and the community.
Headley said, "The temperature on the site is that a number of staff members are nervous about working in close quarters, especially with people inbound from other areas where the disease is more prevalent."
The resolution states, "given the nature of the activities underway at Sanford Underground Research Facility, including but not limited to the significant number of persons coming from outside of the local area, including from areas with significant outbreaks of COVID-19, management and the Board of Directors believe the best means to reduce the likelihood of spreading COVID-19 is to reduce operations at Sanford Underground Research Facility to a minimum essential level consistent with Level 3 of the SDSTA emergency preparedness plan."
The board voted unanimously to enforce the resolution immediately and give Headley the authority to extend or modify the resolution after the initial two weeks are complete.
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