PORTSMOUTH — Inside submarines, the tightest of cramped spaces, six-foot social distances, to slow the spread of coronavirus, are hard to come by.
Charged with maintaining nuclear submarines, staff at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard developed “a defense-in-depth system” to keep workers safe and the work advancing, said Jeremy Lambert from the PNSY public affairs office. That, he said, includes “multiple layers of protection to meet or exceed recommended guidelines.”
In the business of conducting tours of the dry-docked submarine USS Albacore, staff at Albacore Park reopened last week with new rules and reduced access. Before COVID-19, 30 or 40 people at a time would board the 251-foot long and 27-foot wide Albacore, said Executive Director Patti Violette.
Last year 50,000 people bought tickets to tour the Albacore, which has a series of small hatches, confined passageways and close quarters.
“It is a confined space,” said Violette, who reported visitors are now limited to 15 or 20 at a time on the sub.
The sub is so confined, oval hatches (doorways) separating five tightly-packed compartments are clearly too small for large people to pass through. Entryways to galleys, quarters and on-board offices are about a yard wide.
For those reasons, Violette said, only four people are allowed in an Albacore compartment at a time now, even if they’re members of the same family. All must be wearing masks, she said.
After being closed in March, Violette said, she researched safe reopening practices, including consulting with other museums. Then, she said, she spent $5,000 on supplies to put them in place.
“We’re following all the governor’s rules,” she assured.
That starts with a “Checkpoint Charlie” at the entryway to the park where all visitors are stopped and instructed they must wear masks and are asked the same series of medical questions patients are asked at medical facilities. Arrows on the ground direct visitors to one-way paths into the gift shop, where all workers have their temperatures checked with touchless thermometer when they arrive for work every day.
Everyone has to wear a mask all the time and there are five new hand sanitizer stations at the park which Violette fills from the 20 gallons she bought from Flag Hill Distillery and Winery. In the museum gallery, tables were removed and stanchions were added to keep visitors away from each other.
Restrooms were closed and substituted with portable toilets, while staff is instructed to watch for mask-wearing, including via cameras installed inside the Albacore, Violette said.
Twice weekly the interior of the sub is cleaned with ultraviolet disinfecting technology to kill surface viruses, she said. In addition, she said, interior surfaces are wiped down two or three times a day.
Officers’ quarters are now cordoned off, there’s plexiglass over a 1950 typewriter visitors were prone to touch, the officers’ head was closed and views of some quarters are now only available from the passageway.
Across the Piscataqua River at the shipyard, Lambert said, “Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is committed to minimizing the risk of spread while maximizing the execution of our mission.”
To accomplish this, his said, the shipyard’s defense-in-depth system starts at the gates. Before coming onto the yard, he said, “personnel conduct a health self-assessment and then verify that assessment with a supervisor, including a digital temperature check when arriving to work.”
He said hand washing stations were installed at ship brows and other high-traffic locations.
“An additional 380 sanitization stations with gloves, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizer are located throughout the shipyard,” said Lambert. “Because physical-social distancing can be challenging on-board ships, all personnel wear cloth face masks in accordance with Navy, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Occupational Safety, Health and Environmental Control guidelines while on board.”
Work schedules were also adjusted.
“Shipboard jobs are strategically planned to optimize distancing opportunities,” Lambert reported. “Furthermore, personnel have been spread across multiple shifts which no longer overlap and lunch periods have been staggered to facilitate less personnel on the shipyard or in a single space at one time.”
The PNSY spokesman said, “Cleanliness requirements aboard a nuclear-powered submarine are not new.”
“To ensure the safety of both the crew and the civilian workforce, ship’s force members clean high-traffic areas (and) surfaces multiple times a day to further mitigate the risk of spread,” he said. “Defense-in-depth compliance is verified shipboard with regular supervisory checks and self-audit teams.”
Violette said a recent visitor to the Albacore, who identified herself as a health care worker, acknowledged the new efforts at the park.
“She said we’re going a great job,” Violette said, while advising would-be visitors that if it’s hot out, the Albacore will close for the day.