Although the Pentagon is implementing social distancing via virtual meetings and by working from home, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has yet to crack down on large gatherings such as town halls for military units.
And he has no intent to do so — as of now.
“The short answer is no, at least not at this time,” Esper told reporters Tuesday when asked if he would institute a moratorium on large, in-person gatherings.
“I trust the commanders to lead their units and take of them appropriately,” Esper said. “And that has not been raised to me as a problem at this point in time.”
But in the past week, there have been plenty of examples where military installations, commands and units have not been as vigilant about social distancing as they should be and have failed to adhere to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For example, the Army Medical Center of Excellence in San Antonio on Tuesday continued to hold classes for the Interservice Physicians Assistance Program, or IPAP, even as the military’s medical school, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, has moved to institute distance learning strategies.
A source told Military Times 80 of the Army, Navy and Air Force’s future primary care providers were crowded into an auditorium for at least one class Tuesday, despite the CDC’s recommendation that all gatherings of 50 people or more be canceled for the next eight weeks.
Army Medical Center of Excellence Letitia Williamson said the center has been working to transition to online courses.
“As of March 19, 2020, all lecture-based coursework in IPAP will be delivered in an online format in direct support of social distancing direction outlined by the CDC,” Williamson said.
Some Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools have resisted moving to virtual learning as well, allowing children and teachers to interact in close proximity with one another. For example, all DoDEA schools in Japan have been operating as normal — up until Thursday when DoDEA Pacific East announced that DoDEA schools in Japan and Okinawa would take a hiatus from in-classroom learning.
DoDEA Pacific announced that schools would close starting March 23 and would re-open after spring break on April 13. Students will have access to virtual learning starting on March 24.
“The decision to close Japan schools was made out of an abundance of caution and in order to allow for a thorough school cleaning, which would not be possible while students are in the building," DoDEA Pacific said in a letter Thursday. "This pause will also allow school officials to work to augment necessary cleaning supplies and enhance institutional mitigation measures.”
The move comes after DoDEA Pacific East Superintendent Judy Allen said Tuesday there have been no cases of coronavirus at any of DoDEA schools in Japan so far, and any decision to cancel classes would be made in conjunction with U.S. Forces Japan and medical authorities.
“If we do change and do something differently, then certainly we’d look at virtual schooling,” Allen said during a Facebook Live town hall event Tuesday. “We already have some plans in place in case we do have to close the schools of how we would be able to continue the education of our children.”
It was unclear what the line in the sand would be to move toward virtual learning though. Air Force Maj. Allen Fisher, the public health emergency officer at Yokota Air Base in Japan, left the door open for a variety of scenarios to unfold. At the town hall, he said a confirmed case of COVID-19 among students “might prompt us to recommend closure for a short period of time” while deciding how to proceed.
There have been more than 800 coronavirus cases in Japan as of Tuesday, according to the World Health Organization. DoDEA schools in Guam and South Korea are closed.
Military units have also continued in recent days to hold mass gatherings — including hosting town hall events attracting hundreds regarding the response to COVID-19.
On March 11, two days after the Pentagon started its social distancing precautions, the 96th Test Wing based out of Eglin Air Force Base in Florida held an in-person town hall so legal and infectious disease experts, and military personnel could answer questions about coronavirus.
On Facebook, Eglin noted that the event would be held at Enlisted Heritage Hall, which has a “capacity limit of approximately 475 individuals,” and that doors would close once the hall was packed.
During the event, 96th Test Wing vice commander Col. Timothy Beers discussed the gravity of combating the coronavirus as a community.
“Our goal here today was to let you know first and foremost that your health and wellness is at the forefront of all of our decision making,” he said, according to an Air Force news release. “This is on all of us as a community.”
Additionally, when a sailor assigned to the amphibious assault ship Boxer tested positive for the virus, senior enlisted sailors and officers were corralled into a tight space to discuss the situation and social distancing, ProPublica reports.
A sailor present at the 30 minute meeting told ProPublica that approximately 80 crew members were jammed into the ship’s wardroom and were standing between 2 to 4 ft. apart from each other.
“Definitely not enough room to maintain appropriate distance,” the sailor told ProPublica. “People are wondering why we gathered in a room contradictory to CDC guidance.”
Even so, some military units and commands have stepped up their responses to mitigate the threat of coronavirus. Just look at U.S. Forces South Korea.
The first U.S. service member to contract the virus was a soldier stationed in South Korea on Feb. 25, prompting restrictions dramatically cutting down on how many visitors were permitted on base and travel restrictions, along with other forms of social distancing. Additionally, non-essential personnel were instructed to remain at home.
Since then, the number of new cases in South Korea have dramatically declined, which U.S. Forces Korea Commanding General Army Gen. Robert Abrams said was due to approaching it “similarly to how we operate in combat.”
“We apply speed and violence of action on contact,” he said Friday at the Pentagon.
In addition to practicing social distancing, the Pentagon has barred all troops, civilian personnel and family members from traveling domestically until May 11 in light of the virus. International travel to countries the CDC has designated as “Warning Level 3” is also prohibited.
More than 191,000 people around the world have contracted the virus, according to the World Health Organization. Within the U.S., there are more than 3,500 cases.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.