Face Masks Now Mandatory Almost Everywhere on Military Bases

Idaho Air National Guard Airmen return home to Gowen Field, Bois.
Idaho Air National Guard Airmen return home Aug. 8, 2020, Gowen Field, Boise, Idaho, after a deployment to various locations throughout Southwest Asia amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (U.S. Air National Guard/Ryan White)

A sweeping new order issued by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III makes face masks mandatory at all times for everyone on military bases -- with very few exceptions.

According to a memo published Thursday, masks must now be worn even outdoors and when people are able to maintain a six-foot distance, circumstances under which unmasking was previously permitted.

"Individuals must wear masks continuously while on military installations except: (1) when an individual is alone in an office with floor-to-ceiling walls with a closed door; (2) for brief periods of time when eating and drinking while maintaining distancing in accordance with CDC guidelines and instructions from commanders and supervisors; (3) when the mask is required to be lowered briefly for identification or security purposes; and (4) when necessary to reasonably accommodate an individual with a disability," the memo states.

The rules pertain to military installations in foreign countries as well as in the U.S., it says.

The new, detailed guidance replaces an April 6, 2020, one-paragraph instruction that required cloth face coverings in public areas and work centers when maintaining social distancing was not possible.

Austin said his new memo brings the Defense Department into compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines; it follows a Jan. 20 executive order from President Joe Biden requiring all employees on federal lands to wear masks.

The new DoD memo does note that masks are not required in individual homes and that some exceptions for individuals or categories of people, such as small children, may be granted. But allowances won't be made lightly: Permission must be granted in writing for categorical exceptions by a DoD component head and should include other mitigating safeguards "such as additional physical distancing measures or additional testing consistent with DoD testing protocols," the guidance states.

Temporary case-by-case exceptions can be made only at the rank of one-star general or admiral or higher, and permission must be granted in writing.

The new guidance also clarifies what kind of masks are acceptable. Cloth and disposable non-medical masks are permitted, but cloth masks thin enough to let light through, those with ventilation valves and "novelty or non-protective" masks are all off-limits. Face shields can't substitute for masks either, the memo states.

The memo reiterates handwashing and hygiene guidance, and mandates that all individuals who don't share a household should stay six feet apart at all times -- a true practical challenge in indoor workspaces.

The new rules come as the military approaches a quarter of a million COVID-19 cases and has surpassed 250 deaths within the Defense Department. Nationwide, more than 450,000 people have died from the virus.

"COVID-19 is one of the deadliest threats our Nation has ever faced," Austin wrote in his memo. "As we have done throughout our history, the military will rise to this challenge. It is imperative that we do all we can to ensure the health and safety of our force, our families, and our communities so we can prevail in this fight."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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