FORT BENNING, Ga. – Officials here have begun the first measured steps toward what could become an unhurried, phased transition to lifting restrictions they've had in place to minimize exposure to COVID-19.
Those first steps entail reopening the Recreational Shooting Complex and allowing resumption of hunting, fishing, and golf.
They take effect May 1 and were announced during an April 28 online town hall meeting focused on Fort Benning's ongoing actions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was Fort Benning's sixth such town hall since March 17.
Officials are weighing the possibility of further lifting of restrictions, Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning, told the town hall, which was live-streamed on Facebook.
"We have developed a phase plan to reopen and resume some of the normal activities here at Fort Benning, everywhere from the gyms, bringing select employees back to work, the barbershops, and some of the other recreational activities," Brito said.
Also under consideration are changes to restrictions of various kinds within the post, and on travel-related situations such as traveling on pass or leave, Brito said.
"All that'll be addressed," he said.
Beginning in March, officials here adopted until further notice a raft of measures to hinder spread of COVID-19.
They banned large gatherings, halted graduation ceremonies, closed the post to most visits, ordered the Fort Benning community to limit travel to official business and "essential" errands like those for grocery shopping or medical appointments. They've required social distancing and wearing of face coverings. And they've reduced many services and closed some outright. Most employees continue to telework as a further effort at reducing risk of exposure.
During the town hall, Brito cautioned that any further easing of restrictions will hinge on the degree of threat posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, and be based on a close analysis of public health and related data on the pandemic.
"That will be done very deliberately and carefully, and purely based off of the COVID-19 status on the post, and off the post, and the entire common operating picture within the state of Georgia," he said.
"Not something I'm gonna do quickly, something that we will do deliberately, to protect all of our Soldiers, civilians, families and retirees," said Brito. "It will not be a flipping of the switch."
Moreover, he said, any lifting of restrictions Fort Benning may adopt would be promptly "reversed" if the pandemic took a turn for the worse.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I would add, if conditions should get worse, worsen over time, this will be reversed," he said. "I think it's important to help us maintain the safety for our Soldiers, families and civilians."
He noted that the governor of Georgia had ended a shelter-in-place order and has allowed a partial reopening of the state.
Brito has said in earlier town halls that the actions by local and state authorities in relation to the pandemic will be among factors he'll take into account in considering possible adjustments to Fort Benning's pandemic precautions. Other key factors are the latest public health data and guidance on the pandemic, and the U.S. military's own directives.
Accordingly, Brito told the town hall audience, Fort Benning's actions and timetable will not necessarily "mirror" those of state and local government in Georgia, he said.
"As a federal entity we have some responsibilities that I owe, and all the leaders owe to all our families and Soldiers here on post," said Brito. "So with that, some of what we're doing may not exactly mirror the restriction and the application of the restrictions or the opening of the restrictions throughout the state, and locally as well."
Brito also updated the community on arrival of recruits to Fort Benning for initial-entry training and on the departure of those who've finished that training and are heading to new assignments.
The MCoE conducts One-Station Unit Training, or OSUT, for trainees slated for service with the Infantry and Armor branches. MCoE also trains those hoping to become paratroopers and Rangers, among others.
The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command announced recently that initial-entry training centers will once again receive recruits for training.
"That'll be done very safely," Brito said of the trainees. "We'll ensure that you're in good health, to include the drill sergeants and civilians that may be working around you as well, and work you through that training pipeline."
Once Soldiers have completed OSUT and are ready for shipment to their new units, they will have a wait of days or weeks at Fort Benning, Brito said.
"Upon meeting graduation requirements, you may have the opportunity to go to one of the follow-on schools, Airborne, or Ranger, if you're on that respective contract, or, you will wait in a holdover status until we have coordinated some type of travel to move you to your first unit of assignment," he said.
"That travel will be via bus, clean, government-contracted bus, or clean, government-contracted air. It could be a military aircraft as well," he said.
Earlier this week, recent OSUT graduates departed Fort Benning for duty at Fort Carson, Colorado. And Fort Benning recently has also shipped graduates to Fort Stewart, Georgia, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and to Fort Hood and Fort Bliss, both in Texas.
"Those movements are going quite well, and quite smoothly," Brito said, "but what I can tell ya, it's not all 5,000 graduates just picking their number at one time. So with that, moms and dads and Soldiers, you can expect that you may have a holdover status from anywhere from a couple of days up to a couple of weeks, until we move you out.
"Throughout all the training, and I'm proud to say at this point: we have zero trainees that have any COVID-19 infection or positive cases," said Brito. "We'll continue to do our very best to ensure the Soldiers are safe, healthy, fed well, and they're gonna be trained hard, throughout."
With Brito for the town hall were Col. Matthew Scalia, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning, and Col. Melissa Hoffman, commander of Fort Benning's Martin Army Community Hospital. The three took audience questions on a range of topics, including the current restrictions, status of trainees and movement to new assignments, medical care, and other matters.
Key updates and other information about Fort Benning's COVID-19 measures are available on MCoE's official Army website.