FORT BENNING, Ga. – Fort Benning will continue a limited easing of some COVID-19 restrictions but will make no broadscale changes unless the pandemic in Georgia declines for 14 straight days, the post's commanding general said May 12.
Even then, any changes that might be made after such a14-day span would come in gradual stages and be based on careful weighing of public health data and related considerations, said Maj. Gen. Gary M. Brito, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning.
"I said before, we cannot spike the ball yet," said Brito, "we are not out of the woods, we desire a decrease for a consistent 14 days both in our surrounding counties, and the state, before we continue to bring us back to some level of normalcy here on post – barber shops, gyms and other things."
Meanwhile, however, some changes may be made soon, but only with proper social-distancing and other precautions in place, he said.
Brito made the comments in a video in which he gave an updated look at efforts to protect Fort Benning from COVID-19, and answered questions sent in by community members and others. Also answering questions was Col. Matthew Scalia, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning.
Officials have completed "a detailed plan" for the gradual reopening of Fort Benning and are ready to carry it out should conditions permit, Brito said.
"The detailed plan has been briefed to the commanders," he said. "We will look at the decision points and the triggers. The decision will be mine, collectively from the feedback with the staff."
Authorities here took the first cautious steps a few weeks ago, lifting a ban on hunting and fishing, and reopening the golf course and recreational shooting range. Those activities had been halted as part of Fort Benning's effort to stem the spread of COVID-19.
While most of Fort Benning's recreational venues and many other services remain closed or at reduced levels, "opening up barber shops" may be one of the next things to happen, said Brito.
Reopening barber shops is "something I'm looking to do very soon," said Brito. "I won't say in the next day or two, but possibly within the next" two or more weeks.
"And we will," he said, "be putting in some mitigation measures to ensure the spread of COVID doesn't continue to spread: Plastic barriers between those who cut hair. Thinning out some of the chairs for those to be sitting in, to one, accommodate the social distancing, and opportunities to provide some cleaning of the chairs and things like that. That's just one example."
Officials here are also hoping to reopen playgrounds and certain other venues for families to "help manage stress, and just some things for the kids and families to do," Brito said.
Playgrounds are "very close to reopening," Scalia said in the town hall video. "Playgrounds will be coming very soon. I think we're on track certainly by the end of the week."
Gyms, however, are not likely to reopen soon, Brito said, because they can too readily harbor contagion.
"I am not looking to open up the gyms within the next week," said Brito, "probably not the next week or two, until we have a clear down-tick, because quite frankly, given the setup of our gyms – pack a lot of people, pack a lot of people closely. We will also look at maybe thinning out some of the equipment to ensure that people aren't close by. So that is not something I see happening within the next week."
In addition, officials have already begun the first steps in a gradual return of employees from telework to offices.
That transition would be done "slowly" in staggered phases, and department heads have been alerted, Brito said.
"They've been told to bring their employees on slowly," said Brito. "Space out the furniture, or the desk, the work areas in their offices as well. That's critical for the social distancing, still needs to happen.
"Obviously continue to sanitizing things, and hand sanitizer and all that around," he said. "So we started with bring 50 percent back, 75 percent back, work up to a 100 percent back.
"Tied to that – all the brigades and the commanders know this already – if a military, uniform Soldier, or civilian employee, is sick, stay home, or if you have somebody compromised, that you have a concern with, at home, work that with your commander and stay home, and we'll continue to honor that," said Brito.
"Without giving any specifics, " he said, "I have a person on my staff who, an elderly mother lives with her, so we don't want to put that employee in a risk of possibly bringing anything home with that elderly mother. So all of that'll be considered. And I've asked – without micromanaging, I don't want to – I've shared that with the commanders that help us slowly bring back our work force and that has started already."
"This building's a good example," Brito said of the building that houses MCoE headquarters, "as are all the other headquarters buildings and all the company spaces as well. Spread stuff out. If you need to remove some chairs to accommodate social distancing, please do so. If you need to spread the desk out, please do so. If you need to spread your computers away from each other, please do so. We've asked all the commands to include myself, to do that in their common areas."
Also during the town hall, Brito updated the audience on the Army's newly released timetables for movement of Soldiers in what the military calls Permanent Change of Station, or PCS moves to next assignments. The chart shows that Soldiers will face a delay of several weeks to several months from the time they were originally slated to move, the length of delay depending on which of various categories they are in.
The revised timetable is influenced largely by the approach of summer, the U.S. military's seasonal peak for moving military families, known as the "summer surge."
With a chart showing the timetable displayed on the video screen, Brito read it to the audience section by section.
Offering viewers some "context," Brito said the Army expects to move between 55,000 to 60,000 families during the summer surge.
"That is a lot for the transportation department, or TRANSCOM to do all at one time," he said. "And the adjustments to these PCS dates will assist us in managing that bubble, us being the 'Big Army.'"
Meanwhile, Fort Benning continues to ship recent graduates of its One-Station Unit Training to their new assignments, said Brito, and those Soldiers will experience a wait of one to several weeks between graduation and departure.
Scalia outlined the projected openings and other matters in fuller detail in a separate video published May 13. In it he covers movement to new duty stations, schools, child-related services, housing work orders, visitors' access to the post, barber shops, swimming pools, playgrounds, libraries, on-post eateries, and scheduled entertainment events.
The May 12 presentation was the seventh COVID-19 town hall Brito has led since the first, on March 17. It had been scheduled to be live-streamed on Facebook, as the previous six had been, but within moments of starting the internet connection failed, halting the live-stream. Officials decided to scrap the live-steam effort, restart the town hall presentation and record it on video. The video was posted online a few hours later.
Key updates and other information about Fort Benning's COVID-19 measures are available on MCoE's official Army website.