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USO back in business in Japan after three-month pandemic lull

Visitors enjoy free ice cream from the USO after the center reopened at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, Monday, June 29, 2020.

CHRISTIAN LOPEZ/STARS AND STRIPES

By CHRISTIAN LOPEZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 30, 2020

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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Three months after the coronavirus pandemic forced a general lockdown at the 7th Fleet’s home south of Tokyo, the USO reopened Monday with a call to passersby: “Come get your free ice cream!”

On some U.S. bases in Japan, the USO has returned to nearly normal business after months of virtual activities and closed doors during the height of the pandemic. As the U.S. military eases travel and activity restrictions, the USO is opening again, too, but with some safeguards.

At Yokosuka, where the most stringent stay-at-home order was imposed, the USO center for now is admitting only active-duty service members, and only up to 25 at a time, center manager Tammi Tiefel said Monday. Hours are scaled back to 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily for the time being.

The center is adopting other measures, as well. “Masks are also required at all times and we have hand sanitizer and wipes scattered all around the center,” she said.

During the modified re-opening, the USO still offers all services, such as snacks and drinks, access to gaming systems, free Wi-Fi and Chromebooks, which are disinfected before they’re checked out to another user.

“Being able to come in and relax and playing videos games or whatever helps forget about all the stress out there, especially now, and gives a little sense of a return to normal,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew Ditto, from the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville, said Monday.

The Yokosuka USO had been open for 1 ½ months after renovations before closing again March 25. The base population at the time was ordered to shelter-in-place after cases of coronavirus appeared there.

Even while its doors were shut, the USO continued to host virtual programs such as its Coffee Connection and Tot Time gatherings through Facebook Live or Zoom to help combat the isolation that arose from the shelter-in-place order.

The center also handed out snacks and toiletry kits to service members at Yokosuka who were making permanent duty-station changes or whose movements were restricted. It also supported two of the three waves of sailors who rotated through the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan since March.

At Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, the USO celebrated its reopening Monday with free pizza and movie kits, according to volunteer Sheridan Fidelman.

The center is open again 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with a limit of 20 service members and family members for the time being. Public health guidelines are in place, there, too, including social distancing and face masks, according to a summary Fidelman provided Tuesday.

During the forced lull during the coronavirus restrictions, the Yokota branch kept busy with virtual events such as painting nights and story time. It also provided care packages for troops in quarantine and to-go snacks, movie kits and other take-home activities for families at Yokota, Fidelman said.

lopez.christian@stripes.com
Twitter: @CLopez_Stripes

Petty Officer 2nd Class Gyapong Kusi mans the front desk inside the USO at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, Monday, June 29, 2020.
CHRISTIAN LOPEZ/STARS AND STRIPES