A day after he told reporters he fully trusted commanders on the ground to make smart decisions to reduce the spread of coronavirus, Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke directly to those leaders on the ground, urging them to take social distancing seriously if they are in an environment that allows it.

In recent weeks, the Pentagon has taken measures to reduce the number of attendees at meetings, in addition to sending much of its workforce home to telework, but Esper’s guidance to the force has been inconsistently implemented, according to numerous readers who have detailed their experiences to Military Times.

“You take prudent measures as best you can given the situation you’re in,” Esper said in a live town hall meeting Tuesday, broadcast from the Pentagon’s briefing room. “If you can avoid putting a large number of people in small rooms, you should do it.”

Commanders should hold formations outside where possible, he said. And if others in the chain of command are concerned that their higher-ups aren’t taking things seriously, he added, they should speak up.

“If you’re a young [noncommissioned officer] and you see something that doesn’t make sense, if you’re a young officer and you see something that doesn’t make sense, raise it privately with your chain of command,” Esper said.

Those junior leaders have been raising concerns all over Facebook and Twitter, as guidance from the top gives full leeway to commanders about how they do business during the pandemic.

“I can’t put out a blanket policy, if you will, that we would then apply to everybody, because every situation’s different,” Esper told Military Times on Monday. “Tell me how I would implement six-feet distancing in an attack submarine? Or how do I do that in a bomber with two pilots sitting side-by-side?”

In addition to all-hands calls, staff meetings and other general accountability checks, concerns have come from staffers at military entrance processing stations, which cranking out the same number of recruits ready to ship to basic training as they were a month ago, and doing it with the same limited amount of space.

“We can all step into that same location and make a different call on each,” Esper said Monday. “That’s why I have to trust the commanders. If there’s something that sounds really egregious or whatnot, yeah, we should follow up on that, using the chain of command.”

The Pentagon’s latest data shows 174 confirmed COVID-19 cases among service members, up 41 from Monday.

The civilian count is at 59, dependents at 61 and contractors at 27, with 18 hospitalized overall. So far the toll is limited to one death, of a Crystal City, Virginia-based contractor on Saturday.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley encouraged DoD personnel to get tested if they are feeling unwell.

“If you’re symptomatic, by all means, get tested,” he said. “And we do have the capacity throughout the Department of Defense.”

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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