Career advancements will be postponed for more than 159,500 sailors and officers as the Navy cancels selection boards, advancement exams and Reserve drill weekends to try to stem the spread of the dangerous novel coronavirus.
The Navy is suspending all active-duty and Reserve advancement selection boards scheduled to meet on or after March 24, manpower officials announced Thursday. The delays will affect all promotion, advancement, milestone and other selection boards.
The decision was the latest made to "protect the health and safety of our force," Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell Jr. said in a service-wide message. The boards are postponed until further notice, he added.
Navy officials announced earlier in the week that Reserve drill weekends and advancement exams would also be temporarily halted. The moves will lead to promotion delays for more than a third of the Navy's active-duty and Reserve forces.
"COVID-19 mitigation efforts affect the advancement processes of more than 159,500 sailors," Cmdr. James Stockman, a spokesman for Naval Education and Training Command, told Military.com.
Navy leaders say postponing advancement exams, selection boards and other events is necessary to stop large-group gatherings, cut down on unnecessary travel, and allow personnel to keep safe distances from one another -- all of which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are necessary to reduce the spread of the virus.
Holding selection boards would require members to travel to Millington, Tennessee, where the groups convene, a Navy news release announcing the cancellations states. Once there, sailors could be required to work in large groups.
That was also a factor for advancement exams, Stockman said. While the number of sailors taking the advancement exam in the same room varies by command, in some fleet-concentrated areas, such as San Diego or Norfolk, Virginia, there could be up to 1,000 people testing in the same location, he said.
Delaying advancement exams is an unprecedented move for the Navy. Stockman said the service has never before implemented fleet-wide rescheduling of the tests.
Nowell said he is committed to ensuring no sailors are harmed by the selection board delays. That includes new policies to ensure that retroactive dates of rank can be set and allowances for back pay made, if necessary, the news release states.
Once the coronavirus risk is lowered and boards can proceed, Nowell said the rescheduled dates will generally follow the originally planned order.
All the same rules about who's eligible for consideration before the original boards will still apply, Nowell added. No additional candidates will be considered.
Some smaller selection boards might meet virtually, the chief of naval personnel added.
While there's no online version of advancement exams, Stockman said the Navy is aggressively pursuing them.
"A pilot for a high stakes [Navy-Wide Advancement Examination] online exam is being explored for 2021," he said. "However, an E-4 through E-6 advancement cycle includes 90,000 Sailors, so the venues for online testing would still result in group gatherings."
The Navy also relaxed grooming standards as a result of the virus to help cut down the number of haircuts needed; delayed fitness tests; and canceled boot camp and Officer Candidate School graduations.
The service had at least eight coronavirus cases as of Wednesday.