Unvaccinated soldiers stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia, may no longer dine indoors off-post or they could face punitive action, according to a new general order released Tuesday.
Fort Stewart senior commander Maj. Gen. Charles Costanza, who commands the 3rd Infantry Division, announced new COVID-19 restrictions for the south Georgia installation in a Tuesday virtual town hall on Facebook.
Unvaccinated troops are prohibited from more than just indoor dining off-post. Bars, nightclubs, event venues, movie theaters, amusement parts and tattoo parlors are also off-limits to those who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine.
Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield troops face renewed gathering restrictions, too. Indoor gatherings of ten or more people — regardless of vaccine status — are “highly discouraged,” in addition to outdoor social gatherings including more than 15 unvaccinated people.
The renewed restrictions are among the strictest in the Army, representing a partial return to the sweeping shutdowns that took place before the vaccine.
And even soldiers on leave or pass must abide by the stricter rules, according to the order.
In the town hall, installation senior leaders highlighted that the move was in response to rapidly dwindling hospital capacity and stagnant vaccination numbers.
“I know [there’s] going to be a lot of people who are...upset,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Quentin Fenderson, the division’s senior enlisted leader. “But at the end of the day, we really need to get everybody on board to get the vaccination.”
The director of the installation’s Winn Army Community Hospital, Col. Julie Freeman, said that the surging Delta variant of the disease is affecting the hospital’s operations. She said the hospital has had to coordinate out-of-state care in some recent cases.
“Our hospital systems in the community and in the state are stressed,” Freeman told town hall attendees. “Our emergency rooms and other areas of the hospital have been very busy.”
She said the hospital has suspended “most elective surgeries in order to conserve beds and realign staff” and asked Fort Stewart troops not to come to the emergency room “if you don’t have an emergency, such as chest pain, bleeding, trauma, sexual assault, shortness of breath or a mental health crisis.”
The moves come amid a more aggressive COVID-19 mitigation approach from the Defense Department as the virus’ Delta variant begins to stress hospitals in areas with low vaccination rates, such as coastal Georgia.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Monday that he will require troops to get vaccinated once the shots receive final Food and Drug administration approval.
If that approval doesn’t come by mid-September, he said, he will ask President Joe Biden to mandate the vaccine, which is currently licensed through an emergency use authorization.
The Army has been quietly expecting a mandatory vaccine rollout since late June, when an Army headquarters execute order directed all subordinate commands to start preparations to vaccinate all soldiers as early as Sept. 1, pending full FDA approval.
DoD leadership also recently reintroduced mask mandates, even for vaccinated troops in areas that the Centers for Disease Control deems to be experiencing “high” or “substantial” community spread of the virus. Many of the Army’s major installations have reissued mask restrictions in response.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.