As some states look to relax constraints on non-essential businesses and opening up public spaces, military installations around the country are grappling with how far to loosen their own coronavirus lockdowns to get in line with their neighbors.
Though the Pentagon has largely issued general guidance and left it up to unit commanders to decide how and whether they can implement it, leadership is taking a more thorough approach to guiding installation commanders through post-lockdown changes.
“We’re going to look at things on two levels,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Military Times on Tuesday, with guidelines based on state regulations and local conditions.
As states with large military communities ― like Texas, Georgia and Florida ― move past quarantine, installations will be beholden to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as White House coronavirus task force, guidelines and regulations.
“That’s something that will not be made by installation commanders,” Esper said.
At a more local level, those commanders will be exercising their judgment in terms of the situation in their area. In general, garrison commanders have the ability to decide which and what kinds of businesses troops are able to frequent and how far they can travel outside the local area, as well guidelines for anyone coming onto a base or post and which facilities are accessible.
They will also have leeway to update those rules as situations evolve. U.S. public health officials have repeatedly warned that a second wave of infections could hit in the fall, while the effects of lifting stay-at-home orders in states are yet to be analyzed.
“Local commanders have to have the ability to flex," Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on April 17.
Those in the military community should check their installations’ websites and Facebook pages for specific information.
For example, the Fort Benning, Georgia, website announced the reopening of its golf course, recreational shooting complex, and hunting and fishing beginning May 1. There are modified hours at the golf course and driving range: tee time reservations are required, but they’re unable to rent out carts or equipment. Face coverings and social distancing are required at the facilities.
Hunting and fishing at Benning are only authorized for active duty, their family members, government civilians and retirees. No groups larger than six are allowed, and although boat size dictates the number of people, they’re encouraged to have only two people in the boat, to fish 6 feet apart.
Senior DoD officials discussed re-opening plans in a meeting Tuesday, Esper said, as they also strategized a process for relaxing the military’s stop-movement order, which tamps down on most permanent change-of-station moves and large-scale training exercises through the end of June.
Esper has floated the possibility of tailoring restrictions based on locality ― for instance, more free movement between areas with low infection rates, while taking a different approach with more affected regions.
More thorough testing of service members, to include hundreds of thousands of potentially asymptomatic carriers, will give the services a better idea of the risk. And developments in COVID-19 treatment or vaccinations will also help the process along.
“The sooner we can get to that, that gives us the confidence that we can relax some of our practices,” Esper said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.