Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered new, stricter rules for masks on military installations, requiring virtually everyone to wear a mask even if social distancing, and whether it’s indoors or outdoors.

The memo, issued Thursday, was effective immediately. Austin specifically mentions outdoor shared spaces in the requirements, and specifically mentions practicing social distancing in combination with other preventive actions against COVID-19, including wearing the mask.

Those new rules replace a similar memo issued April 5, 2020, by then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Those previous rules required everyone to wear a mask when they couldn’t maintain six feet of social distance; and it didn’t specifically mention outdoor requirements.

“COVID-19 is one of the deadliest threats our nation has ever faced. As we have done throughout our history, the military will rise to this challenge,” Austin stated in his memo. “It is imperative that we do all we can to ensure the health and safety of our force, our families, and our communities so we can prevail in this fight.”

The primary exception for the mask-wearing is an individual’s home. Others are:

• when an individual is alone in an office with floor-to-ceiling walls with a closed door;

• brief periods of time when eating and drinking while maintain social distancing;

• when a mask must be lowered briefly for identification or security purposes, such as at the installation gate; and

• when it’s necessary to reasonably accommodate an individual with a disability.

Heads of DoD components may grant categorical or case-by-case exceptions in writing for service members and their families in environments other than military office spaces, that are related to living on a military installation, or that are related to children’s mask requirements, as long as the exceptions are consistent with guidelines for the Centers for Disease Control for mask wearing by children. According to the CDC, generally children older than 2 should wear a mask.

For other situations outside of office settings when temporary unmasking is necessary for mission requirements, only high-ranking officials have authority to grant exceptions: a general/flag officer of at least O-7 grade; a senior executive service member; or an O6 installation commander when the installation doesn’t have officials at those higher levels.

The masks must cover the nose and mouth, and meet the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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.

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