Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that the military is continuing to follow the strict guidelines laid down by Dr. Anthony Fauci to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, even as many states relax restrictions as they seek to reopen their economies.
"There will be a new normal that we will have to adapt to for an extended period of time, at least until we have a vaccine that we're confident in," Esper said during a Brookings Institution forum.
He said there are no immediate plans for a significant relaxation of the guidelines on military bases, but the Pentagon building itself might be an exception.
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"Each service is different, each training situation is different, each training scenario is different," he said.
But overall, the military is "adapting his principles and his guidelines to the force," Esper said of Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
Fauci has warned against lifting guidelines on social distancing, face masks and other preventive measures until states can show at least 14 days of sustained declines in new infections.
Individual commanders may have some leeway in following Fauci's guidelines "so that they can maximize training in the safest possible way for their soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines," Esper said, but the overall intent is to protect the force.
However, an exception could be made for the Pentagon, where most of the workforce has been telecommuting, access has been limited and strict observance of social distancing and face mask policies has been enforced for those reporting to work in the building.
"For the past few weeks, our chief management officer has been developing plans to reopen the Pentagon," Esper said, but he gave no timeline for any changes.
For the rest of the force, the Defense Department is preparing to adapt its policies on readiness, training, recruitment and retention to the long-term effects of COVID-19, he said. "The long-term view is: What do we do over the next 6, 12, 18 months?"
Esper also expressed concerns that the massive amounts of federal spending aimed at coping with the coronavirus and an economy in free fall could lead to cuts in defense budgets.
He referred to his previous estimates that defense budgets need growth rates of 3-5% in the coming years to carry out the National Defense Strategy focused on Russia and China.
"I am concerned that the massive infusion into the economy by the Congress and the executive branch, nearly $3 trillion, may throw us off that course," Esper said.
Last week, Esper came under criticism from a group of 10 Democratic senators for what they called the department's lax response to the COVID-19 epidemic and his shifting guidance to the force.
In a letter to Esper, the senators charged that the defense secretary's decision to give unit commanders leeway on addressing the pandemic led to a scattershot response putting service members at risk.
"Although local commanders know their units and operating environments better than anyone in the Pentagon, they are not public health experts," the senators wrote. "They are now left to make decisions they should never have to make."
As reported by Military.com, Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman dismissed the letter as a collection of "cherry-picked" charges.
The letter "does not even remotely accurately reflect our record of action against the coronavirus and the great lengths we have gone to protect our people," Hoffman said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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