By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Labor issued its first workplace guidance to nursing homes on Thursday since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country and ravaged care facilities, saying residents, staff and visitors should keep 6 feet (1.83 meters) apart.

The alert from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also said nursing homes should screen residents and staff for symptoms and should find alternatives to group activities.

OSHA, which is charged with setting and policing national working conditions, did not recommend testing of residents or workers by nursing homes, which have been hit by the coronavirus since February.

A Department of Labor spokesperson declined to comment on the timing of the guidance and said the department’s jurisdiction only applied to nursing home workers. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has published guidance on when to conduct testing of residents and staff.

President Donald Trump said this week that nursing home residents should have access to testing if there was testing capacity.

AARP, a group that represents seniors, said care facility staff must have personal protective equipment (PPE), which OSHA recommended, as well as “the necessary testing to identify cases and prevent the spread of the virus.”

Nursing homes account for a large portion of the 85,000-plus deaths in the United States from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The elderly and people with underlying chronic health conditions are among those at highest risk for severe illness and death.

Unions have criticized OSHA for not doing enough to protect workers, who have protested conditions at food-processing plants, warehouses and fast-food restaurants.

Worker advocates have pushed Congress to direct OSHA to issue emergency temporary standards that all businesses must follow.

Businesses have complained they must navigate a complex mix of state and local standards as well as guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and have asked Congress to provide a shield against legal liability.

OSHA also recommended on Thursday that taxi drivers wear masks and drive with lowered windows and pharmacies should encourage online ordering.

Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia has defended his department and said it is investigating workplace safety complaints but that flexible guidance is a better for businesses than rigid standards.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Leslie Adler and Grant McCool)