Elizabeth Boyle, Staff
Recently amidst all the negative news and the war raging in Europe, some positive news has come to light in Philadelphia — no more mask mandate. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health announced that on March 2, 2022, the city is moving into the “All Clear COVID-19 Response Level.” This change means the indoor masks mandate is dropped effective immediately.
Military bases have been instructed to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) community COVID-19 guidelines. These guidelines will indicate whether active duty military, civilian employees, and visitors need to wear a mask on military bases. The CDC has determined that masks and screenings are no longer mandatory when the Community Level of COVID-19 is determined as low. When deciding this level, they take into consideration the hospital admissions, the percentage of inpatient beds taken by COVID-19 patients, and the number of new cases in a given community. Where Community Levels of COVID-19 are considered medium, the screening will continue but indoor mask mandates may be dropped. This means that DOD employees and service members can remove their masks based on where they are stationed.
The issue of military base locations is complicated in places such as the Army’s Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, and Marine Corps bases in Coronado, Point Loma and Camp Pendleton in California. These bases are spread over three or more counties each. These are some of the largest military bases in the U.S. and they will be waiting for further instruction from the CDC. For example, Fort Bragg covers four counties that are in a variety of ranges for COVID-19 Community Levels.
As military bases reach lower COVID-19 levels their facilities are being opened up to include more people per building. The Pentagon has increased the occupancy of buildings from 25 percent to 50 percent. This can have an impact on efficiency as well as morale, such as when the service members express excitement for “more options for seating in the food court,” as mentioned in an email circulating to base personnel.
As for COVID-19 vaccines in the military, the Pentagon has announced they are going to be investigating COVID-19 exemptions. The Pentagon’s Inspector General has announced that he will inspect exemption requests, and if they are unsatisfactory proper punishments will be handed down. He stated that punishments are “in accordance with Federal and DoD actions.”
An intense conflict has arisen as federal legal cases have been filed by service members who have refused the COVID-19 vaccine. The judges reviewing the cases have stated that there may be issues stemming from flaws in the exemption process. Those who are petitioning have stated that “the record creates a strong inference that the services are discriminatorily and systematically denying religious exemptions without a meaningful and fair hearing.” In Texas, actions against a group of special forces sailors were stopped by the judge based on how their exemptions were handled by the Navy. In court, Navy Seals claimed that “ their accommodation requests are futile because denial is a predetermined outcome.”
As civilian vaccines and boosters are available, the mask mandates are being lifted day by day. For our service members, rules on masks will apply based on the location they are stationed. As their mask restrictions are lifted, a struggle continues between the Pentagon and DOD for service members who do not wish to receive the vaccine or have a religious exemption.