Coronavirus restrictions hurt morale, may hit retention, Navy commander writes
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 4, 2021
Stars and Stripes is making stories on the coronavirus pandemic available free of charge. See more staff and wire stories here. Sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter here. Please support our journalism with a subscription.
Coronavirus restrictions have hurt sailors’ morale and may prompt some to jump ship when their terms of service expire, a Navy commander wrote recently in an independent journal.
Cmdr. Matt Wright, a 2002 U.S. Naval Academy graduate who leads Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22 at Norfolk, Va., brought up his concerns in the April edition of the U.S. Naval Institute’s monthly magazine, Proceedings.
“COVID-19 remains a real threat, both to the health of sailors and to fleet readiness,” he wrote, referring to the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. “However, it is far past time to update the Navy’s defensive posture.”
Pandemic restrictions ordered by the Navy last summer eliminated many outlets for stress relief and were still in place last month, according to Wright.
“I can clearly see the results of those restrictions on the morale and mental health of my squadron, but more important, I am concerned that Navy personnel have already suffered significant and unnecessary damage to their long-term health,” he wrote.
The Navy coincidentally lowered the risk level on Saturday at bases around Hampton Roads, Va., including Naval Station Norfolk, where Wright is stationed, to Health Protection Condition-Bravo, according to the local ABC TV affiliate. That may lead to relaxed measures at those bases.
Bravo represents a moderate risk of the virus spreading; condition Charlie represents a substantial risk.
On Friday, the Navy also updated its guidance to commanders on adjusting health protection conditions and base services during the pandemic, according to a statement on Monday.
Vaccinated sailors will be subject to conditions no more stringent than those in condition Bravo, no matter their assigned installation’s status, the statement said.
“I expect we will continue to improve services available for our Sailors and their families while protecting the force as the number of personnel vaccinated grows," Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer, the Navy’s operations chief in charge of coordinating the service’s response to the pandemic, was quoted as saying. “The key is for everyone that is eligible to get vaccinated.”
In his Proceedings article, Wright said the Navy should update its order to simply require sailors to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
The CDC updated its guidelines May 27 to say that people vaccinated against COVID-19 may safely resume some activities, such as small outdoor gatherings, without wearing masks.
“The Navy now has more than 200,000 sailors and officers with a significant level of immunity through vaccination or from recovering from COVID-19,” Wright wrote.
Sailors may cite the pandemic restrictions as a reason for leaving the Navy in the event of a booming, post-pandemic economy, he added.
Wright cited the case of a promising naval MH-60S Seahawk pilot who plans to quit the Navy, writing that, “the preceding year’s restrictions on his individual liberty played a significant part in his desire to leave.”
Navy spokesperson Lt. Gabrielle Dimaapi, in an email Monday to Stars and Stripes, requested more time to comment on issues raised by Wright.
A Navy order dated June 23, 2020, restricts sailors’ activities on and off duty while their installations maintain health protection Charlie-minus, the status of most bases in the United States last month, according to Wright.
The Navy imposed its restrictions months after 1,271 sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt contracted the virus during a Pacific patrol in March 2020, the first large outbreak aboard a Navy ship.
The carrier diverted to Guam to address the outbreak, which claimed the life of one crew member and the job of the ship’s commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, who was fired after a letter he wrote seeking help was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Since then, the Navy has reported 38,095 coronavirus cases as of Friday; the Department of Defense reported 25 deaths caused by the pandemic among service members from all branches as of that day.
The Navy’s pandemic restrictions continue to limit “travel to/from place of residence/work with stops only for essential business,” such as food, medical care, pharmacy visits, gas and child care services, according to Wright.
During the pandemic, the Navy in many places has prohibited off-duty sailors from visiting off-installation swimming pools, gyms, fitness facilities, salons, tattoo parlors and barber shops.
Sailors, and other service members, are also often barred from taking part in team sports and dining in at restaurants and patronizing bars, nightclubs, sporting events, concerts, public celebrations, parades, beaches, amusement park, non-essential commercial retail establishments and shopping malls.
“For me, playing team sports is my favorite stress-relieving activity,” Wright said in his Proceedings article. “Yet, they are off limits.”
At home, sailors may not hold gatherings that include more than 10 guests, he wrote.
The list of prohibited activities “includes many of the normal, healthy outlets for sailors off base,” Wright added.
“Further, the disparity regarding the restrictions placed on sailors as compared with those on civilian neighbors causes unnecessary stress within Navy families — imagine a married couple confined to their home full of rambunctious children with no ability to reconnect on a date night for an entire year while their neighbors post pictures of their adventures to social media,” he wrote.