Masks, COVID-19 Screening Now Optional on Many DoD Installations

Cloth face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Engineers with the Combat Capabilities Development Command - Soldier Center at U.S. Army Natick Soldiers Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, fabricated 10,000 cloth face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (U.S. Army photo by Markeith Horace)

U.S. military installations have been instructed to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's community COVID-19 guidelines to determine whether troops, employees and visitors must wear masks indoors or be screened for the coronavirus.

Defense officials announced Wednesday that commanders should follow the CDC's COVID-19 Community Levels to determine mask and screening policies on their bases. The move reflects an announcement last week by the CDC that, under new guidance, more than 70% of the U.S. population can shed their masks, depending on where they live.

The CDC published a color-coded map of the U.S. that provides local communities guidance on determining whether their residents should wear masks or be subject to widespread testing.

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Using calculations that include hospital admissions for COVID-19, the percentage of inpatient beds taken by COVID-19 patients and new case rates, the map shows counties as green, where indoor masking can be dropped; yellow, where masks are optional but at-risk residents should be cautious; and orange, where universal masking is recommended.

According to the new Defense Department guidance, masks and screening will not be required for installations in counties where the CDC COVID-19 Community Level is considered to be low.

For communities where the level is deemed medium, screening will continue, but indoor mask requirements can be dropped.

And in areas where the level is high, screening and indoor mask wearing will continue for all, regardless of vaccination status, according to a memo released Wednesday from Under Secretary of Defense Gilbert Cisneros.

The DoD guidance may not apply to health care settings and other areas where "commanders and supervisors determine that [precautions are] required to protect the health and safety in the workplace," according to the memo.

During his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Joe Biden said that, based on projections, more of the country will be "mask free" in the coming weeks, but his administration is preparing for any new COVID-19 variants and ensuring that enough medications and supplies will be stockpiled should they be needed.

But he added, it's time for Americans to "get back to work and fill our great downtowns again."

"We can end the shutdown of schools and businesses. [We] have the tools we need. ... People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office," Biden said.

The new guidance means that service members and DoD employees can remove their masks, depending on where they are stationed.

At the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, for example, the area has low community levels of COVID-19, and masks are no longer required indoors.

The Pentagon also increased the number of people who are allowed to work in the building, from 25% to 50% occupancy, and added "more options for seating in the food court," according to an email sent to building occupants.

But those living on some of the largest military installations may have to wait. The CDC guidelines recommend that mask mandates remain in place at Fort Bragg, N.C., which straddles four counties labeled as having high community levels. That also applies to San Diego County, California, which is home to Navy bases in San Diego, Coronado and Point Loma, as well as Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

Overseas installations have been advised to consult the data for their host nations or consider consulting with local public health authorities, academic institutions and the World Health Organization.

Cisneros instructed DoD installations to post clear signs and information about the local masking requirements on their websites. He added that all other force health protection guidance remains in effect.

Regardless of the local guidance, those who wish to continue wearing masks may do so, the memo noted.

COVID-19 cases have been falling among U.S. service members over the past month, from more than 10,000 new cases the week ending Feb. 2 to 2,296 in the past week. The DoD has tracked 388,151 cases in U.S. service members since the start of the pandemic.

Ninety-three service members have died.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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