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Navy, wary of virus, stays vigilant as civilian world edges toward reopening

Sailors wear face coverings while standing in line at Naval Base San Diego on April 6, 2020.

AUSTIN HAIST/U.S. NAVY

By ANDREW DYER | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: May 9, 2020

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(Tribune News Service) — San Diego's military units remain cautious about the novel coronavirus even as restrictions are easing on some California businesses and as other states push toward a broader reopening.

In a message to the fleet published Wednesday, Adm. Mike Gilday,  chief of naval operations, reiterated the importance of following recommended guidelines to protect sailors' health.

"As state and local officials begin to re-open communities, we must continue to focus on the health and safety of our Sailors and their families," Gilday said. "While I know we are asking a lot of our Sailors and families right now, with measures such as extended deployments and pre-underway Restriction of Movement (ROM) periods, these sacrifices are necessary to maintain a healthy force around the world."

Navy and Marine Corps installations in San Diego began restrictive measures in mid-March as the novel coronavirus began spreading in the local community and service members began testing positive. Bases instituted teleworking for those able to do their jobs from home while measures such as no-touch ID checks and temperature screenings started for those coming to work on base.

After the virus spread out of control on board the San Diego-based aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in late March and early April, the Navy began quarantining crews of ships before going to sea in an attempt to prevent the virus from derailing other missions.

The Roosevelt has been sidelined in Guam for more than a month, trying to rid its crew of the virus. One sailor died after catching it.

On Wednesday, after several days in port at Naval Air Station North Island, the aircraft carrier Nimitz left to begin an exercise in the eastern Pacific. The Everett, Wash.-based aircraft carrier will then begin a planned western Pacific deployment.

The Nimitz crew was quarantined in Washington for 27 days on board the ship prior to deploying, the Navy said recently.  While it was in San Diego picking up members of its air wing, its crew remained sequestered on board, according to Cmdr. John Fage, a 3rd Fleet spokesman. They also were all tested for the coronavirus, he said.

Members of its air wing based in San Diego were quarantined at barracks on board North Island for at least 14 days, said Cmdr. Ron Flanders, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces in San Diego. Air wing sailors also were tested for the virus.

Navy officials did not disclose the number of crew testing positive for the coronavirus.

Sailors on board the Nimitz are wearing face masks and cleaning frequently to try to maintain a virus-free "bubble" on board, Fage said.

"The ship is remaining very vigilant," he said.

Local bases also are still limiting operations to essential services, with no plan to ease soon, said Brian O'Rourke, a Navy Region Southwest spokesman. The region includes all Navy bases in California as well as Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada.

Base galleys — cafeterias — remain take-out only, although Navy Exchanges and commissaries are open, as they have been since the onset of social-distancing and stay-at-home orders.

At the unit level, it's not a one-size-fits-all approach, however. O'Rourke said that at the regional level, non-essential staff are staying at home. Department heads, he said, returned to work this week.

Naval Air Forces and 3rd Fleet staff also are working from home when possible, including Capt. Brett Crozier, the former captain of the Theodore Roosevelt.

He has been reassigned to Naval Air Forces while an investigation into the outbreak on the ship is ongoing. He's an assistant to the chief of staff for Naval Air Forces.

Crozier was removed from command after a letter he sent to a handful of Pacific Fleet admirals and captains asking for help with the coronavirus outbreak on board was leaked to the press.

Crozier's plan to evacuate the ship was implemented by the Navy, and thousands of sailors moved off the ship while a small crew stayed behind to clean. More than a month later, many of the crew are in the process of moving back on board while others remain in quarantine.

More than 1,100 Roosevelt sailors tested positive for the virus. The Navy stopped releasing specific numbers for shipboard outbreaks on May 1.

Jonathan Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman, said at the time the decision to stop releasing numbers was because "we believe we've moved past the point where the daily updates are providing useful information for public conversation."

At Naval Base Coronado, Naval Special Warfare Center resumed training that had been suspended seven weeks ago for certain SEAL and SWCC groups.

Instructors will wear masks and maintain their distance from trainees, Capt. Bart Randall, commodore of the center, said Tuesday, but the school will not change its notoriously arduous training regimen.

"Our students are going to have close contact; we are not going to change the training here," Randall said. "We're not changing the quality of training or the standards to become a SEAL or SWCC operator."

The training center tested all its first phase trainees and instructors for COVID-19 this week, a Navy spokesman said Friday.

For Navy bases worldwide, Gilday said in his message to expect guidance from the Pentagon on reopening.

"Each Fleet, region and installation will be on a conditions-based timeline to open," Gilday said. "As the forward deployed force of our country, we have a duty to ensure we are ready to respond. We cannot simply take a knee or keep everyone in port until this enemy is defeated."

Gilday also stressed the importance of social distancing and wearing masks.

"As we continue to learn about this virus and how to mitigate its risk, the widespread public health measures you are actively practicing — physical distancing, face coverings, minimizing group events, frequent hand-washing, sound sanitation practices, a questioning attitude on how we are feeling — must be our new normal," he said.

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A sign at Naval Medical Center San Diego directs COVID-19 symptomatic active duty service members to a drive thru station on the installation on Apr. 2, 2020.
VERNISHIA R. VAUGHN-LUCAS/U.S. NAVY

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