FORT LEE, Va. – The senior commander at the Sustainment Center of Excellence has authorized a change in the post’s operational status to Health Protection Condition - Alpha, effective today.
It means a greater semblance of the normal post functions that were in place prior to the onset of the pandemic just over a year ago. Family and MWR facilities can operate at full capacity; Child Development Centers can open additional slots for youngsters; and guests will be allowed to attend outdoor advanced individual training graduation ceremonies.
Discussing the change, Col. Joseph Colacicco, CASCOM director of training, G-3/5/7, said the installation has pretty much remained “in lock step” with Virginia’s reopening plan. Social distancing and venue capacity restrictions were lifted across the commonwealth at the end of May, and there has been no significant rise in COVID case rates in the six regions closest to Fort Lee. So, it was decided the transition to HPCON-Alpha was appropriate.
Maj. Taron Dukes, chief of operations at CASCOM, offered additional details about the opening of AIT graduations to guests. The change in policy is outlined in the latest version of General Order No. 1 – the document that has laid out the commanding general’s expectations for COVID-19 prevention since the early days of the pandemic.
“While family attendance at outdoor ceremonies is permitted, they will not be allowed to interact with graduates at the ceremony because the potential for spreading the virus still exists and the command wants to maintain a sterile bubble among the student population,” Dukes said.
Unit leaders have been given the authority to establish pick-up locations away from the remaining student population if a family is providing transportation for a Soldier taking leave on the way to their next duty station, he added. Anticipating a related question that will be likely asked, the major said family visits with students still enrolled in AIT courses at Fort Lee remains prohibited
The reason initial entry students must remain in a “sterile bubble” is twofold, Colacicco explained. First, a TRADOC order requires it, and second, the risk is greater among that population because they live, dine and train in closer quarters than advanced course students.
For the latter, the Army Logistics University president will continue to have the authority to approve visitation and off-post privileges. School commandants overseeing the trainee population may approve travel off post only for official duty requirements, medical referrals by a military health care provider, or emergency leave. The latest General Order emphasizes that any individual who is not fully vaccinated must wear a mask at all times while off post.
According to Colacicco, leaders plan to re-assess the aforementioned procedures in three-to-four weeks as the first groups of predominantly vaccinated Soldiers from basic training are due to report in July.
“Restriction of Movement” and COVID testing requirements for unvaccinated individuals reporting to Fort Lee also are discussed in the latest General Order, and Colacicco said it is the incoming service member’s responsibility to review that information and comply with the requirements.
Moving on to another topic – the lifting of restrictions on gathering capacities – Tom Green, chief of the Business and Community Recreation Division under the Family and MWR directorate, said Fort Lee fitness facilities will now be able to operate at full occupancy. Unvaccinated personnel, however, must continue wearing masks when moving between equipment or not actively exercising.
Locker rooms also will re-open, he noted. The saunas will remain closed because they are being replaced, Green said.
Also, the Lee Club, Ten Strike Bowling and Entertainment Center, Cardinal Golf Course, Sustainers’ Pub and the Hideaway will be able to resume their pre-pandemic full occupancies. Bar seating, in those establishments that have it, also will be re-opening, according to Green.
Over the next several days, Army Community Service will go through a phased approach for its full re-opening, Green said. The office will be fully staffed and open for appointments during this time, and it will resume walk-in service as of July 1.
For Child and Youth Services, the caregiver-to-child ratio will increase to 15:1. That, coupled with the anticipated onboarding of new hires, will create about 60 more slots for child care. Green pointed out that there are still multiple vacancies the directorate is trying to fill, and that is hindering CYS from reaching full capacity.
Many of the DFMWR activities are hiring, Green further emphasized. Job seekers can go to the USAJOBS website, www.usajobs.gov, and do a keyword search for “NAF at Fort Lee” to see the open positions.
Anticipating another sure-to-be-asked question, Colacicco addressed telework, noting that it is not directly linked to the HPCON level. He said organizations across post are “following a deliberate process” to see what telework will look like in the future, and decisions will be shaped by the lessons learned from the last 17 months. Those with questions about fully returning to in-person work should discuss it with their supervisor.
Other HPCON-Alpha changes were briefly mentioned during the discussion with Colacicco such as reauthorizing a commercial taxi service on post for services such as transporting AIT students to the airport when making a permanent change of station move.
Mask wearing requirements at Fort Lee have not changed under HPCON-Alpha. Those not fully vaccinated are required to wear masks in any location where they are likely to come in close contact with other individuals. All Team Lee members are expected to comply with facility requirements for masks, as some agencies are requiring them regardless of vaccination status.
“Let’s put this into perspective,” Colacicco summarized. “The move to HPCON-Alpha does not mean the pandemic is over. We are still under a national emergency and can’t let our guard down.”
One might describe the operational status change as a balancing act between having much more access to the things community members want to do and incorrectly assuming COVID is no longer a threat, which could lead to another rise in cases and necessitate a roll-back to a more restrictive HPCON level.
“The biggest reason we have been able to get to this point during the pandemic is the constant effort of everybody in the Fort Lee community to follow the protocols and measures in place,” Colacicco said, citing the work of CASCOM units, Fort Lee tenant organizations and garrison assets.
“This has been a community effort,” he concluded. “It’s what you would expect from this professional team at Fort Lee.”