A parachute rigger with 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), Group Support Battalion sews surgical masks for medical patients at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., on March 31, 2020.

A parachute rigger with 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), Group Support Battalion sews surgical masks for medical patients at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., on March 31, 2020. (Joe Parrish/U.S. Army)

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U.S. troops worldwide must wear masks, and sew their own if necessary, if they cannot maintain social distancing standards to protect against the coronavirus, the Pentagon announced Sunday.

The directive follows a sharp rise in coronavirus infections in the ranks and concerns about the ability to maintain 6-foot social distancing, especially aboard ships and aircraft.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the directive applies to all personnel: troops, family members, military civilians and contractors.

“Effective immediately, to the extent practical, all individuals on DoD property, installations, and facilities will wear cloth face coverings when they cannot maintain six feet of social distance in public areas or work centers,” Esper said in a message to the force.

Personnel are not required to don masks inside their homes, the directive stated.

The Pentagon will not issue masks to the military community, Esper said, adding that people should make facial coverings from household material such as T-shirts and cloths that can cover the nose and mouth area.

Proper surgical masks will not be issued because they are being reserved for the “appropriate personnel,” Esper said.

The Navy, in an administrative message to sailors Sunday, said the service plans to procure official uniform masks. Until they’re issued, sailors and Navy civilians were authorized to wear medical or construction masks as well as bandanas and scarves to cover their nose and mouth.

When troops and civilians approach bases for work, they should be prepared to lower their masks when crossing security checkpoints, Esper said.

Exceptions to Esper’s mask instruction require the approval of local commanders and also must be submitted up the chain of command for notification.

Esper’s announcement comes as coronavirus infections surge within the military. As of Friday, 978 service members were infected with the coronavirus along with nearly 700 hundred civilians, according to Pentagon data.

The issue of infections in the ranks and the dangers faced by personnel was underscored when the USS Theodore Roosevelt was forced to dock in Guam after an outbreak among sailors. The aircraft carrier’s commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, was relieved of command Thursday after a letter he wrote raising health concerns became public.

On Sunday, The New York Times reported that Crozier was now among the more than 900 infected troops. Twitter: @john_vandiver

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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