Georgia is opening up. Fort Benning may not.
The U.S. military is preparing to operate under pandemic restrictions for the foreseeable future even though some states are beginning to lift coronavirus lockdowns — a dynamic that could create a patchwork of military installations operating under far stricter restrictions than the states where they are based. The differing policies of military and state officials demonstrate the lack of national consensus about how and when to “reopen.”
The Trump administration this week began to declare victory over the coronavirus, which as of Friday has killed 63,000 Americans and sickened over one million. "We've achieved all the different milestones that are needed. The federal government rose to the challenge, and this is a great success story,” the president’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner said on Fox News on Wednesday.
A handful of states with shelter-in-place orders have begun to lift some of those restrictions, allowing businesses like gyms, beauty salons, and movie theaters to reopen. But that doesn’t mean that military bases in those states will be reopening their facilities to service members, or that the Defense Department broadly is following the lead of governors who say an “inflection point” has been reached in control of the virus.
“We’re going to be living with this virus for some period of time. So making sure we adjust the protocols and adjust the process I think is absolutely critical,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told reporters last week. “The new abnormal I’m defining as living and operating with a cyclical virus until we get a vaccine. All the projections are no vaccine for upwards of a year.”
There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to reopening military installations, senior Army leaders told Pentagon reporters on Thursday.
“The virus did not impact the country uniformly, so we need to tailor our approach to reopening,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said. “By developing Army-wide standards and protocols now, the Army will help ensure our senior mission commanders are ready once DOD and local movement restrictions ease."
Georgia’s reopening has been one of the most closely scrutinized by public health experts who believe it is premature. Acting against both President Donald Trump and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, GOP Gov. Brian Kemp has reopened everything from restaurants to gyms to bowling alleys, albeit with some requirements, like screening workers for a fever.
But the commander of the Army base Ft. Benning, which sits on the border of Georgia and Alabama, warned service members this week in a town hall meeting that although state and local authorities will be taken into account, the rules for the base won’t necessarily follow state rules.
"As a federal entity we have some responsibilities that I owe, and all the leaders owe to all our families and soldiers here on post," Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito said Wednesday. "So with that, some of what we're doing may not exactly mirror the restriction and the application of the restrictions or the opening of the restrictions throughout the state, and locally as well."
Any easing of restrictions on-base will be done “very deliberately and carefully, and purely based off of the COVID-19 status on the post, and off the post, and the entire common operating picture within the state of Georgia," Brito said.
One of the challenges the military faces within the United States is that “while we are committed to protecting the entire force to include family members, we don't have the ability to provide guidelines for civilians outside of the installation, nationwide,” said one defense official. “So as states start their re-opening procedures, we are working closely with our leaders to provide guidance that not only protects our force, but allows us to maintain the level of readiness required to protect the nation.”
Elsewhere, the dynamic is reversed. In New York, which remains locked down as COVID-19 deaths continue to mount, Trump and the Army have faced criticism for his decision to bring back 1,000 cadets to the Military Academy at West Point for their graduation. Trump is expected to speak at the graduation, and critics have slammed the decision as a political move designed around the president. The U.S. Naval Academy, by contrast, will hold a virtual graduation ceremony.
McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville defended the decision on Thursday as necessary for readiness, arguing that the students needed to return to make final preparations for their duty assignments.
“We can’t telecommute to combat,” McConville said.
Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams said cadets will be screened for the virus, separated into small groups that will live and eat separately, and quarantined for 14 days.
In the Washington, D.C. area, where stay-at-home orders remain in effect until at least June 10 in Virginia, and, for now, indefinitely in Maryland, Pentagon leaders are grappling with how and when to get the country’s largest office building back to work.
Broadly, the Defense Department is working on plans to allow service members to safely travel from one part of the country to another, DOD spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters Friday.
“We’ve acknowledged from the start we believe that opening up and beginning some of the travel and PCS season may be on a location-by-location basis, where the sending and gaining location have to both be in a good place,” Hoffman said, using an acronym for the transfer of a service member or unit to a new assignment.
The department is working to develop standards for safe movement, Hoffman said, adding that leaders hope to announce guidelines in roughly a week. “Has there been a reduction in cases? Is there still a stay at home order in place? What are the things we need to look at,” he said. “I think the Army was looking at the ability to do testing and handle medical care if necessary.”
But normalcy, at least for the department, remains on an indeterminate horizon.
"Is it back to business as usual? No, I don't see that,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said during an April 14 briefing.