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Coronavirus mask mandates begin to drop for more US bases in Japan, Guam

A woman wears a mask as protection against the coronavirrus in Zushi, a city near Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, Friday, May 14, 2021.

AKIFUMI ISHIKAWA/STARS AND STRIPES

By JOSEPH DITZLER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 17, 2021

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TOKYO — U.S. air, naval and Marine Corps commands in Japan and on Guam had dropped their coronavirus mask mandates, with some exceptions, for fully vaccinated people on their installations as of 6 p.m. Monday.

In each case, commanders stipulated that everyone on U.S. installations must wear a mask around Japanese co-workers, base employees and members of the Japan Self-Defense Force. Local commanders may tailor the overall policy change to fit their situations.

Misawa Air Base in northeastern Japan, citing a policy change by U.S. Forces Japan, was first in the country to announce an end to mandatory masks indoors and outdoors on the base for fully vaccinated individuals, according to a Facebook post by Misawa on Monday afternoon.

Later Monday, Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, the USFJ headquarters, did the same, according to orders signed by their respective commanders.

Yokosuka Naval Base, homeport for the 7th Fleet south of Tokyo, dropped its mask mandate following guidance from Naval Forces Japan commander Rear Adm. Brian Fort. Three remaining Navy installations in Japan had made no change by 6 p.m. Finally, III Marine Expeditionary Force at 7:15 p.m. on its Facebook page announced the same change to its policy for Marines on Okinawa.

On Guam, Andersen Air Force Base also dropped its mask mandate, according to an order Sunday by 36th Wing commander Brig. Gen. Jeremy Sloane.

The Guam territorial government on Friday also exempted fully vaccinated, incoming travelers from the mandatory 10-day coronavirus quarantine, according to the U.S. island territory’s Joint Information Center.

People who are not fully vaccinated are still expected to quarantine upon arrival, according to the order.

At bases in Japan, the Defense Department mask mandate from February remains in force for unvaccinated individuals. In some cases, everyone must continue wearing masks, including in schools, day care centers, medical and dental facilities, public transportation on and off base and anywhere in public outside the installations.

And everyone must wear a mask while in proximity to Japanese co-workers and service members, according to the Air Force and Navy orders. Japan lags behind other developed nations in vaccinating its population and many Japanese employees at U.S. bases are not inoculated.

“Fully vaccinated individuals must wear a mask while interacting with any host nation personnel on the installation,” said the order signed by Yokota commander Col. Andrew Campbell on Monday. That includes any interaction, from being within six feet of a Japanese person on base to co-workers in office settings and cashiers at the commissary and exchange.

Campbell also advised fully vaccinated individuals to carry a copy of their inoculation cards.

U.S. bases in Japan reported five new cases of COVID-19, the coronavirus respiratory disease, between Friday and 6 p.m. Monday.

Sasebo Naval Base on Kyushu island reported one person tested positive Friday after close contact with a previously infected person, according to a base Facebook post Monday.

On Okinawa, two people at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and one at Camp Hansen tested positive between Saturday and Monday, according to a post by Marine Corps Installations Pacific.

Kadena on Friday reported one person contracted the disease after close contact with another infected person, according to a base Facebook post.

Japan, now in its fourth viral surge, reported 19,359 new COVID-19 cases between Friday and Sunday, according to the World Health Organization. More than 11,400 people in Japan have died from complications of the coronavirus during the pandemic, according to WHO.

At Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Col. Lance Lewis said masks remain mandatory for all on the air station south of Hiroshima, regardless of their vaccination status.

“This is more restrictive than the new DOD guidance and here is the ‘why:’ we have a responsibility to our host nation to stay engaged in the COVID fight alongside them,” he wrote. “Any changes made about masks will ensure we are not being insensitive to our Japanese hosts and unduly putting them at risk.”

U.S. Army Japan had announced no change by 6 p.m. Monday.

The Defense Department on Thursday dropped the mask mandate for fully vaccinated individuals that it imposed on all installations Feb. 4. Typically, area commanders have had the responsibility to implement public health orders from above during the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had revised its guidance to say fully vaccinated individuals could do without masks in most situations. Fully vaccinated means two weeks past a one-dose or the second of a two-dose inoculation, according to CDC.

U.S. Forces Korea on Friday dropped the mask requirement for fully vaccinated individuals with the command. Its South Korean employees in Tier 1, which includes health care workers, first responders, individuals in command positions and critical personnel are eligible for the vaccine, according to email from USFK spokeswoman Jacqueline Leeker to Stars and Stripes on Monday.

“To date,” she wrote, “USFK has achieved an approximate 76% vaccination rate for all eligible personnel across the joint force.”

ditzler.joseph@stripes.com
Twitter: @JosephDitzler