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Troops on Guam are weathering their second COVID-19 lockdown

YIGO, Guam — Service members based in Guam are sheltering-in-place for a second time this year, after an August spike in COVID-19 cases on the island prompted the U.S. territory’s Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero, who herself tested positive in early August, to shut down all non-essential businesses once more.

Of nearly 1,300 positive tests on Guam since mid-March, 192 of them have been service members, primarily airmen and sailors, Lt. Cmdr. Rick Moore, spokesmen for Joint Region Marianas, told Military Times on Saturday.

Military Times is part of a small group of journalists traveling with Defense Secretary Mark Esper as he tours the Pacific.

The island first made headlines earlier this year after the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt pulled into port to handle an outbreak of roughly 100 sailors, which ballooned to more than 1,000 diagnoses by the time all sailors aboard were tested. It kicked off a series of events leading to the reassignment of Capt. Brett Crozier and the resignation of then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly.

Since then, Guam’s pandemic mitigation has mirrored that of many states on the mainland. A shutdown began to roll back in early May, when shopping centers, salons and flower shops began to reopen.

“The military and the government, we try to keep our health protection conditions as closely aligned as possible,” Moore said of restrictions for personnel living on Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks at a ceremony in which Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. succeeded Gen. David L. Goldfein as the Air Force chief of staff at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Aug. 6, 2020. (U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders/DoD)
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However, throughout the pandemic, their garrison commanders have been able to flex the rules, according to the missions on their respective installations.

“In a lot of cases, just because we cannot risk our mission readiness and, [we have to protect] our individual deployers,” Moore said. “For example, we can’t risk getting … a ship or submarine infected with the virus, because that will affect our readiness.”

At other points, he added, base facilities have been less restrictive than outside the gate.

“So that could be either access to a commissary or exchange, or it could be schools — could be something like that,” he said. “We don’t always necessarily line up, but we try to meet the intent of the … local government policies.”

But overall, Moore said, the message to troops has been to take as many precautions as reasonable, even if they were technically allowed to visit bars and other potentially crowded places.

“You go down with the virus and you have to stay in isolation, or you potentially spread to somebody else, you’re going to affect to the entire mission of for your command,” he said. “So I think it’s a personal responsibility thing … if I go down with the virus, someone else is going to have to pick up my responsibilities, and I think that extra gravitas kind of inspires you to not take any extra risk than that.”

In early June, Guam’s government facilities came back online, as did gyms and public pools, following several weeks later by bars, restaurants, museums and other public gathering places, though with reduced capacity.

But hundreds of new cases popped up in late July/early August, Guerrero announced a new shelter-in-place order on Aug. 14. It’s still on after setting a two-week minimum timeline.

Guam’s case is unique, as most regions in the contiguous United States have not re-instituted lockdowns after moving into late spring re-openings.

As many installations Defense Department-wide have lowered their health protection conditions and started to allow inter-base travel, both Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force base have returned to HPCON Charlie, restricting access to mission-essential personnel and shutting down most facilities, including beaches.

Back stateside, DoD lifted travel restrictions to states like Texas and Arizona just weeks before massive spikes in cases began prompting some cities to tighten up restrictions again in July.

“As you can imagine, the outbreak across the entire state of Texas is different,” Lernes Hebert, the Pentagon’s director of military personnel policy, told Military Times on July 1. “Because we don’t want to do wholesale closing down and lifting of travel restrictions, we’re going to do it installation by installation.”

Guam is also unique, in that officials are allowed to disclose the number of infections on its bases.

Since March, Esper has cited operational security as the impetus for banning installations from releasing their cases, except for a handful of bases outside the contiguous United States, like South Korea and Japan, where local public health officials have opted to release the data for on-base infections.

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