Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – Travel is once again allowed beyond a 50-mile radius of Fort Benning starting Jan. 25 under a new order issued here, which also allows use of off-post gyms and eateries.
But that's only if those businesses observe proper COVID-19 measures. Bars remain prohibited.
Maj. Gen. Patrick J. Donahoe, commanding general of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning issued the new order, General Order No. 8. It eases at least some of the more stringent COVID-19 precautions that had been in place since early January.
"We just ask you, as we loosen up those restrictions again, you've got to fully understand that we still have a very high case rate off the installation," he said during an online town hall meeting live-streamed Jan. 21. The meeting discussed the new order and the COVID-19 vaccines being made available here.
He noted that the interim, tougher measures begun earlier this month under General Order No. 7, were adopted to put Fort Benning in an agile "kung-fu stance" to help check a possible major surge in the virus inside Fort Benning once thousands of Soldiers had returned here from two weeks of holiday leave. The leave ran from Dec. 18 through Jan. 3.
As part of that tightening of restrictions for the return from holiday leave, Fort Benning had raised its health protection level, or HPCON (pronounced H-P-CON) from Bravo to the more restrictive HPCON Charlie, from Jan. 4 through 18.
The new order returns Fort Benning to HPCON Bravo as of Jan. 25.
Also as part of the earlier order, No. 7, travel was restricted to within 50 miles of Fort Benning, entering restaurants for sit-down meals or pick-up was banned, gyms were banned, much of the work force was placed on telework, and the start of certain military training was switched to a set of later dates.
But the post-holiday precautions were deemed a success, giving way to the reduced controls of General Order No. 8, Donahoe said.
Also speaking during the town hall were MCoE's Surgeon, Lt. Col. Ethan Miles, and Col. Matthew Scalia, commander, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning.
The full text of General Order No. 8 is available online.
On restaurant use, the order says: "Indoor dining is limited to restaurants that implement social distancing between tables and where restaurant employees are wearing face masks. Time spent in the establishment should be minimized to decrease exposure risk. There are no restrictions to outdoor dining establishments where social distancing is implemented between tables."
On gym use, it says: "Personnel may use gyms that implement social distancing and" where employees wear face masks. "Time spent at an indoor off-post gym should be minimized to decrease exposure risk. Masks must be worn at all times inside these facilities."
"We fully understand that you're as at-risk eating at a restaurant in Columbus as you are eating in a restaurant in San Francisco," Donahoe said during the town hall. "And so we understand there's a risk that we've gotta take.
"We would ask you to make sure you take every possible measure to enjoy your life, but remain COVID-free while you do it."
Besides discussing the move to less restrictive measures, the town hall put focus on the COVID-19 vaccine available at Fort Benning on what is thus far is a voluntary basis.
"So first off," said Donahoe, "this vaccine right now is absolutely voluntary for Soldiers, civilians, dependents. So it is absolutely voluntary. Nobody can order you to take the vaccine. This is a personal decision. I mean every one of us has to go through this decision-making process and determine if it is right for you to take this vaccine.
"I'd ask ya to get informed before you make the decision to opt in or to opt out," he said.
Both Donahoe and Miles have taken the vaccine, they said.
"I got vaccinated about two weeks ago," said Donahoe. He was "very confident in the science behind it ... I did some research, I read all the information that's available and I'm pretty confident in the science of it, the safety of our system in the United States to approve this going forward.
"But then for me, for my job, I've got to travel. And I know that every time I go to the airport and get on a plane or if I stop somewhere, I'm exposing myself to this virus, given the widespread nature of it.
"When I'm goin' out and traveling and I'm coming back, I'm protecting my coworkers," he said. "Or I'm not becoming a vector into my own workgroup," he said.
"And then the same thing when I go home," said Donahoe. "I've got school-age kids in my house and my wife is there. In my mind it's the right thing for me to do to protect my family. And again that's the right decision for me. I've gone through a thought process. I've educated myself. But that's my choice. And so every individual's got to make their own choice of what's right for them and their family."
Miles had four "main reasons" for getting the vaccine, he said during the town hall.
"One, my personal safety," he said. "So while yes, a lot of young healthy, and not so young – like me – healthy people, tolerate COVID well, there's also multiple that don't.
"So there's a lot of patients that are young and healthy that do get sick and some that die from it," Miles said.
"So number one is a personal safety thing," he said. "I'm also more concerned about the long-term effects of actually contracting the virus than I am from getting the vaccine. I believe the vaccine is safe and it's come through a good process so far.
"Number two, I'm a medical provider," said Miles. "So I want to ensure that I'm able to respond, take care of patients, I want to make sure that I can minimize any risk to patients and coworkers.
"Number three, I want to minimize the risk of myself passing COVID-19 on to someone else who isn't as healthy as me," he said. "So someone that's old, someone that's got some medical conditions, where they may not do so well if they get COVID.
"Because as much as you try to lock down and protect others and stay away from them and socially distance, you still, day to day, you wind up putting people at risk," Miles said.
"And then the third thing: I'm tired of COVID," he said. "I want to do my part to get Fort Benning and nation back together and back to normal again. Nobody likes the idea of wearing masks, restrictions and all the disruptions in our mission. So I think this is a key step in order for us to move on and get on with the mission."
He also explained how vaccinations are scheduled here.
"So as we get vaccine in," Miles said, "we contact the chain-of-command . And we start scheduling ... those personnel who volunteer to get the vaccine, to come in and get the vaccine so we can rapidly immunize those that are on the list, as we get the vaccine."
Some people, he said, wonder whether certain medical conditions may make them ineligible for the vaccine.
"The best thing to do, in my mind," said Miles, "is go ahead and show up for the vaccine. When you go to get the vaccine you'll be screened and there'll be a provider there who can talk with you about your individual issue and if you're qualified or disqualified based on medical conditions."
Also during the town hall, the panel took questions sent in from the community.
One asked whether children's off-post activities like gymnastics and cheerleading were allowed.
"Yes, for the most part," Scalia answered, "but this is where we really need parents to use their judgment and meet the intent of the general order. I've got children participating in outdoor activities off-post, but not all the time."
Parents should use discretion case-by-case and scrutinize each activity before deciding whether to allow their children to take part, Scalia said.
There may be instances in which parents decide to say to organizers of an activity that "'we don't feel comfortable sending our children, we don't think it's within the intent of the general order,' or, 'Can you show us the good mitigation measures?' in place for the activity, Scalia said.
"So we still want children to be engaged," he said. "We're not trying to 'ruin' their childhood with these measures. But we do ask parents really meet the intent of the general order. So there's no blanket prohibiting children from participating in these. Just use good judgment."
On the matter of access to post at Fort Benning's gates, Scalia said the Trusted Traveler program has been reinstated last week "to allow visitors back on with their ID card, CAC card member."
He reminded community members that Trusted Traveler applies from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"After that," he said, "everybody will need to show identification and if they don't have the card allowing access at the gate they'll have to get a visitor's pass."
More information on the vaccine is available from Tricare.
And Fort Benning maintains its own COVID-19 Information Resource webpage at: https://www.benning.army.mil/CoronaVirus/.