FORT BENNING, Ga. – An image from a Dec. 15 live-streamed town hall session in which Fort Benning's commanding general, Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe (upper left), announced that stricter COVID-19 control measures will be imposed starting Jan. 4, the day after thousands of Soldiers are due to return here from holiday leave. The heightened restrictions are to be in place  through Jan. 18, after which they could be relaxed, or kept in place, depending upon the state of the pandemic. Appearing with Donahoe during the town hall were Col. Matthew Scalia (lower right), commander, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning, and Dr. Lisa B. Coleman (lower left), Georgia/Alabama community superintendent for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). Moderating the session was Benjamin L. Garrett, MCoE and Fort Benning's chief of public affairs.(U.S. Army photo by Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning Public Affairs)
FORT BENNING, Ga. – An image from a Dec. 15 live-streamed town hall session in which Fort Benning's commanding general, Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe (upper left), announced that stricter COVID-19 control measures will be imposed starting Jan. 4, the day after thousands of Soldiers are due to return here from holiday leave. The heightened restrictions are to be in place through Jan. 18, after which they could be relaxed, or kept in place, depending upon the state of the pandemic. Appearing with Donahoe during the town hall were Col. Matthew Scalia (lower right), commander, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning, and Dr. Lisa B. Coleman (lower left), Georgia/Alabama community superintendent for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). Moderating the session was Benjamin L. Garrett, MCoE and Fort Benning's chief of public affairs.

(U.S. Army photo by Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning Public Affairs) (Photo Credit: Patrick Albright)
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Fort Benning Public Affairs

FORT BENNING, Ga. – Fort Benning will impose stricter COVID-19 control measures starting Jan. 4, the day after thousands of Soldiers are due to return here from holiday leave, the post's commanding general announced Dec. 15.

Some 11,000 trainees are scheduled to depart starting Dec. 18 for what's called holiday block leave, and to return by Jan. 3, said Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning. Some drill sergeants and other members of the training cadre will also be on block leave.

MCoE trains Soldiers for entry to the Infantry and Armor branches, which together comprise the Army's maneuver force.

With so many from Fort Benning traveling the country amid a surging COVID-19 pandemic, officials here are shifting to a "kung-fu stance" of tighter measures that could help stem a major outbreak of COVID, should one arise after the troops return, Donahoe said.

Accordingly, the post's set of pandemic safeguards will change from those required under its current health protection condition level of HPCON Bravo (pronounced H-P-CON), to the more stringent HPCON Charlie, for the two weeks of Jan. 4 through 18, Donahoe said.

His comments came during a virtual town hall session live-streamed on Facebook. The session focused on holiday block leave and the tighter measures to be taken in its aftermath.

"So we're gonna put in some very, very strict control measures, as we use that two-week period of time, post-block leave, to determine the trajectory of the disease on Fort Benning." – Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe, commanding general, U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning

"The intent of it," said Donahoe, "is to give us a period of time to limit our movement, limit our exposure, protect the force, protect our families, protect our workers, so that we can determine what the impact of sending 11,000 trainees out all over the country, as well as cadre being given the opportunity to take leave and then coming back here in January" will be on the state of the virus here.

"So we're gonna put in some very, very strict control measures, as we use that two-week period of time, post-block leave, to determine the trajectory of the disease on Fort Benning," he said.

If the two weeks pass with no major increase in COVID-19 cases resulting from the return of thousands from holiday leave, and if the number of COVID cases in the surrounding region does not continue to climb, the restrictions under HPCON Charlie would be eased to those of the less stringent HPCON Bravo, said Donahoe.

Just how long the tighter restrictions of HPCON Charlie will stay in place will hinge entirely on careful, day to day assessments of the state of the pandemic, Donahoe said.

"What we've put in place is a plan," said Donahoe. "Our plan is, 4 January through 18 January, to be at HPCON Charlie, and then on the 19th of January – the Tuesday following the Martin Luther King weekend – to come back down to Bravo ...

"That's the plan," he said. "And as anybody in uniform knows, plans are subject to changes in the environment.

Donahoe noted the pandemic's current record levels.

"This is a critical time in the story of this pandemic," he said. "We are, nationwide, seeing record cases around the country.

"We're seeing the same spike here" in the region around Fort Benning, he said, "and ... we're trending up pretty steadily after coming out of the Thanksgiving weekend. We are on a trajectory to match the rest of the country and set high records of this.

"So we gotta keep that in mind as we talk about holiday block leave," said Donahoe. "We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we protect our force, that we ensure our families are all cared for and that our employees are protected as best we can.

"The intent of General Order No. 7 is to drive us into a kung-fu stance," said Donahoe, "to make us absolutely defend and protect the force for the two weeks, from the 4th through the 18th of January."

Donahoe listed some of the key elements that will apply once the restrictions kick in:

• Essential activities, which include medical appointments and grocery shopping, among others, will be permitted.

• Entering restaurants will be forbidden, both on Fort Benning and outside it. But using a restaurant's curbside pickup service or its drive-through window will be allowed.

• Use of gyms and similar fitness facilities outside Fort Benning will be banned. Use of bars, already forbidden under current pandemic restrictions, will remain banned.

• Social gatherings will be limited to no more than 15 people. That includes military formations and physical fitness sessions. Rules governing the size of groups will be different for those in military training, but they too will continue to be trained under careful COVID-19 precautions.

• Travel will be restricted to within a 50-mile radius. Any possible exceptions will require approval of a general officer.

• Visits to Fort Benning for recreational or social purposes will be banned. Those members of the Fort Benning community who may need visits for medical or other special purposes may ask authorities to consider allowing a visitor in such cases.

• In-person schooling will be halted for children attending classes on Fort Benning, and will instead be held online.

Appearing with Donahoe during the town hall were the commander of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning, Col. Matthew Scalia, and the Georgia/Alabama community superintendent for the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), Dr. Lisa B. Coleman, who oversees Fort Benning's schools.

Fort Benning will begin posting details and successive updates on the situation after the Christmas holiday and continuing through the period of HPCON Charlie, Scalia said.

The information will be posted to its COVID-19 Information Resource webpage .

Scalia suggested community members rely on that webpage for correct, official information.

The webpage was set up earlier this year as the pandemic emerged and Fort Benning took its first related safety measures, Scalia said.

"In the early days we built this page as a one-stop shopping for you to go get the latest information on those closings, modified hours, modified services, ID cards, gate access," said Scalia. "There's even a page there for frequently asked questions.

"So please, instead of frustrating yourself trying to check answers on Facebook comments threads, go to that webpage for the latest information," he said.

"We will update that information with the restriction of movement period, this HPCON Charlie period – not now – because we're not there yet, but after Christmas holiday, before New Year's," he said. "So between the 20th and 30th is when we will post and start messaging some of this specific information."

Parents of Fort Benning's DoDEA schools have already been contacted about the upcoming changes, and will continue to receive updates on the situation, said Coleman.

"It is key and essential though that parents be mindful and cognizant that our schools will continue to message to them," she said. "So it's important that they continue to monitor their emails.

"But," said Coleman, "the most important part of that is, upon January 4th, our return from the holiday block leave, our schools will be in remote instruction and students will be using their digital devices and other assignments that have already been crafted by our faculty and staff."

Those wanting permission to bring a visitor to Fort Benning can submit online requests through the COVID-19 Information Resource page, said Scalia.

"It gives you a link and email to send a pass request to," he said.

"We are focused on preventing social guests and recreational guests onto the installation," he said. "So families, if you have people that need to come on to support your families – babysitters, physical therapists, your mother coming in for the birth of your child – things like that are acceptable."

Giving Soldiers a chance to pause from the rigors of training to spend time with family and "regenerate" was "incredibly important," Donahoe said.

"But I will tell ya," he said, "you've got to do that with the understanding of the absolute tremendous case rate that is exploding all around us ...

"So you've got a series of things you've got to do every day," he said. "You've gotta get up and you've gotta say to yourself, 'Hey, how am I gonna remain COVID-free during this period of time?'

"And so, again," he said, "it's, let's restrict our movements, let's protect the force, let's hunker down for two weeks to determine the state of the disease, and we'll make decisions going forward from that, based not on our desire but based on the disease itself."