Service members will be instructed to start wearing face coverings in public in the latest effort to limit the spread of the deadly coronavirus, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in in a military-wide memo issued Sunday afternoon.
DoD will not issue masks specifically for this and the memo says individuals should make their own face coverings.
“Effective immediately, to the extent practical, all individuals on DoD property, installations, and facilities will wear cloth face coverings when they cannot maintain six feet of social distance in public areas or work centers (this does not include in a Service member’s or Service family member’s personal residence on a military installation),” according to the memo. This includes all:
*DoD Civilian Employees
*All other individuals on DoD property, installations, and facilities
Exceptions to this requirement may be approved by local commanders or supervisors, and then submitted up the chain of command for situational awareness. Security checkpoints may require the lowering of face covers to verify identification, the memo states.
The Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness will issue updated force health protection guidance on DoD implementation. The Military Departments will issue guidance on wear for service members, according to the memo.
“As an interim measure, all individuals are encouraged to fashion face coverings from household items or common materials, such as clean T-shirts or other clean cloths that can cover the nose and mouth area,” according to the memo. “Medical personal protective equipment such as N95 respirators or surgical masks will not be issued for this purpose as these will be reserved for the appropriate personnel.”
The move comes two days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a national recommendation that citizens wear non-medical face coverings while in public.
“These include places like grocery stores and pharmacies,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in a White House announcement Friday. “We especially recommend this in areas of significant community based transmission.”
Esper, in an interview with ABC’s This Week, said the military would issue specific guidance by the end of the weekend to instruct commanders on when the masks should be worn.
“We are going to take every measure to protect our troops,” he said.
“Our priority is making sure we can conduct our national security missions, and to do that we can’t always keep six feet distance. Whether you’re in an attack submarine, a bomber, in a tank, we have to take other measures.”
The defense secretary declined to say whether he will be wearing the masks in public. On Friday, President Donald Trump said he would not.
“I just don't want to be sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk … wearing a facemask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens,” he said. I don't see it for myself, maybe I'll change my mind. Hopefully it will pass very quickly.”
Federal health officials emphasized that the masks are not a replacement for other illness prevention measures like social distancing and self quarantines.
They also said that medical-grade masks should not be used by the general public, because those items are in short supply and needed by health care workers.
The recommendation for voluntary use of face coverings in public is a reversal of earlier CDC announcements. Officials said the change came because of concerns that even asymptomatic carriers of the virus can spread it.
As of Friday, service members’ rate of infection rose to 466-per-million, while the general U.S. populations rate ballooned to 651-per-million. The DoD death rate has also risen, from 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent as of Friday, versus the overall 2.1 percent rate in the U.S.
There were 905 troops with COVID-19, as well as 73 more who have recovered as of Friday. The number stands at 395 for civilians, with 11 recovered; 244 dependents, with 12 recovered; and 106 contractors, two of whom have recovered.
Nationally, more than 310,000 Americans have tested positive for the virus and nearly 8,500 have died. Nearly all of those cases occurred in the last month.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.