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Fort Bliss tightens restrictions as entire El Paso community struggles with surge in coronavirus cases

Maj. Gen. Sean Bernabe, the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss senior commander, jots down notes moments before going live at his first Fort Bliss coronavirus Facebook Town Hall on Oct. 22, 2020.

MICHELLE GORDON/U.S. ARMY

By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 27, 2020

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AUSTIN, Texas – The commander of Fort Bliss has barred off-base dining and all trick-or-treating for Halloween in response to the surge of coronavirus cases at the Army base and in nearby El Paso, which accounted for more than 30% of all new cases reported in Texas on Monday.

“Unfortunately, we continue to see steep increases in active cases on Fort Bliss. To help slow the spread of [coronavirus] within the Fort Bliss community, we must take aggressive now,” according to a news release sent Monday night by the west Texas Army base.

In a memo to amend the base’s coronavirus safety restrictions, Maj. Gen. Sean Bernabe, commander of Fort Bliss and its largest unit the 1st Armored Division, outlined a series of changes that fall in line with many of the restrictions implemented in El Paso and the surrounding community, including a curfew, limitations on visiting restaurants, bars and stores, and gathering limits of 10 people or less. The limit on gatherings does not apply to voting or religious services, according to the memo.

Fort Bliss personnel can only go to restaurants for takeout and cannot dine-in. Door-to-door trick-or-treating and “trunk-or-treat” events are barred on and off base. Bernabe implemented a 10 p.m. curfew across the base to match one enacted in El Paso County.

“In light of the most recent decisions of El Paso officials and the restrictions they put in place, I have made the decision to adjust our posture on Fort Bliss,” Bernabe said in a statement. “These changes will ensure we protect the health of our Fort Bliss community while also supporting and remaining in sync with our El Paso neighbors.”

The city of El Paso reported 1,390 new cases Monday and four new deaths, bringing the total to 580. The city is the sixth largest in Texas with nearly 700,000 residents.

The Defense Department does not provide break downs of coronavirus cases at specific bases or locations and Fort Bliss officials did not provide the number of cases on base or how steep of an increase there has been.

The El Paso Coronavirus Task Force highlighted Monday three sources of community spread: visiting local stores; eating at restaurants and bars, and traveling to and from Mexico. Fort Bliss personnel are already barred from traveling to Mexico, which borders the city.

The increase in cases at Fort Bliss comes as the entire military grapples with a rise in coronavirus numbers. The seven-day average rose by 98% last week to 731 new cases, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

On Friday, the Defense Department reported 872 new cases, approaching the highest daily reported increase of 980 cases on July 17. Since March, 104 military-connected personnel have died from the coronavirus, including eight service members.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Veronica Escobar, the Democratic congresswoman for the region, requested the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency work with the Defense Department to open resources to the community from the base’s William Beaumont Army Medical Center.

“We’re aware of the situation,” said Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman. “We are in talks about what we can do to be helpful. In the end, it is still an HHS, FEMA-led process. The Defense Department stands ready should we receive a mission assignment from them.”

On Monday, the hospital began accepting transfers of eligible Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs patients from community hospitals, including those with coronavirus, to free space in local facilities, according to a news release from the medical center. More patients are expected to transfer, though officials did not provide exact numbers, citing operational security.

“[William Beaumont Army Medical Center] remains committed to serving our El Paso community,” Col. Michael S. Oshiki, hospital commander, said in a statement. “Along with the other medical facilities within the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council regional trauma system, [the hospital] is working diligently to respond to the challenges of the [coronavirus] pandemic in our community.”

Thayer.rose@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rose_Lori

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Three weeks after taking command of the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss, Texas, Maj. Gen. Sean Bernabe hosted his first Fort Bliss Coronavirus Facebook Town Hall as the senior commander on Oct. 22, 2020.
MICHELLE GORDON/U.S. ARMY