The Navy 'Trusts The Judgment Of Commanders' To Balance Social Distancing With Military Readiness

Mar 26, 2020

The Navy has suspended some activities and restricted others to help stop the spread of COVID-19, but the military response to the pandemic can seem uneven at times.


The Navy continues to announce more measures at bases around the world to limit the spread of COVID-19. But while parking lots at many businesses in Southern California are deserted, those at Naval Station San Diego were still full March 23 as the hospital ship USNS Mercy departed.

"We came down here with family, my inlaws, my son," said Julio Quintona. He was among a handful of family members of sailors who were allowed on the dock to watch their loved ones leave for Los Angeles, where the ship and its crew will back up local hospitals strained by the virus.

"You always have worries and concerns regardless when family departs," Quintona said. "But all in God's hands. Greatest Navy in the world"

The military's response to the pandemic can seem uneven at times. The Navy has suspended most recreational activities and events. The commissaries are still open, but are allowing people in just a few at a time. Barber shops have shut down.

However, thousands of Marines are continuing to train in Yuma, Az., in an annual exercise called Weapons and Tactics Instructor, despite at least one Marine at the base there testing positive for the virus. Marines at Camp Pendleton also are continuing exercises at nearby Marine Air Station Miramar, even though Marines have tested positive at both bases.

Representatives of both bases said the Marine Corps is isolating those who test positive and quarantining everyone they came into close contact with. The bases are following guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Navy and Marines are telling nonessential personnel to work from home, but it's up to local commanders to determine who is essential, said Admiral Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, during a Pentagon briefing March 24.

"We really do trust the judgment of our commanders, and we're giving them broad authority to do what they think they need to do to remain on mission and take care of people," he said.

While the Navy encourages base leaders to listen to local authorities, naval officials also put out guidance March 20 from the U.S. Attorney's Office making it clear that the military isn't required to follow those orders. Nor are federal contractors, like shipbuilders, whose factories remain in operation.

In the same Pentagon briefing, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly acknowledged that not every commander may be getting the message.

"Everyone is taking this pretty seriously," Modly said. "We have heard about some anomalies, and we are trying to address those, but generally speaking, we are leaving those decisions to the commander."

The Pentagon announced March 25 that globally, the U.S. military is going to Health Protection Level Charlie, the second-highest level, further curtailing travel.

The situation is rapidly evolving.

Fifteen days after the USS Roosevelt left Vietnam, a country that already had a handful of cases, three sailors aboard the San Diego-based aircraft carrier tested positive, becoming the first cases found aboard a Navy ship. Gilday told reporters the Navy hasn't determined whether the virus came from the port visit or possibly from one of the aircraft that landed on the carrier. On a U.S. Defense Department video of the visit, sailors from the Roosevelt can be seen interacting with Vietnamese locals.

Virtually all port visits have now been suspended for the roughly 100 ships deployed at sea, Gilday said.

The majority of those ships don't have coronavirus test kits. As the Mercy departed for Los Angeles, Rear Adm. Timothy Weber, Commander of Navy Medicine West, was asked why more sailors haven't been tested.

"Navy medicine, military medicine, says follow CDC guidelines, and CDC guidelines say don't test everyone," he said.

The Roosevelt is one of three ships that just received testing kits for the virus. The ship has since pulled into port while all 5,000 sailors aboard are being tested for the coronavirus.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.