Defense Secretary Mark Esper receives a COVID-19 briefing from Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, on May 7.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper receives a COVID-19 briefing from Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, on May 7. U.S. Northern Command

Pentagon Sets New Rules for ‘Return to Normal Operations’ Worldwide

"We’ve got a ways to go," says official in charge of re-opening, but local commanders given authority to decide.

The Defense Department is easing its global travel restrictions and laying out guidelines for reopening the Pentagon in preparation to “return to normal operations,” officials announced on Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has lifted a blanket restriction on travel put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, replacing it with conditions-based guidelines designed to allow domestic and overseas travel to and from locations that have seen a drop in COVID-19 cases. DOD officials outlined similar rules for reopening the Pentagon, which for months has operated at roughly 20 percent of its normal capacity. 

“While the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic still presents risk to DoD Service members, civilians, and their families, improving conditions warrant a transition in our approach to domestic and overseas personnel travel to a conditions-based, phased approach to personnel movement and travel,” the new guidelines read. 

The Pentagon’s decision comes amidst a fierce national debate over the public health restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the virus and political pressure to ease them, restart businesses, and reopen life. Esper faced criticism in the early days of the pandemic for what some service members saw as a failure to act swiftly or decisively to protect service members and other DOD personnel; by pushing decision making down to individual commanders, critics said, he created a muddled response to the crisis. He and other Joint Chiefs of Staff also were photographed at the White House not wearing protective face masks or keeping six feet apart, per the DOD’s own guidelines.

The U.S. military, through strict rules on travel and self-quarantining, has kept coronavirus largely out of its ranks. The Defense Department rule change comes on the same day Pentagon officials announced the death of just the third service member from COVID-19. (18 civilians have died, out of a total of 35 DOD personnel.) 

The new guidelines allow individual commanders to determine when it is safe for restrictions to be eased. The conditions for easing travel restrictions are based on regional criteria aligned with the White House’s re-opening plan, “Opening Up America Again,” which require a 14-day drop in cases, as well as the conditions on a given Defense Department installation. Also among the considerations are testing capacity and the readiness of hospitals to handle an upswell in cases. 

The Pentagon’s re-opening plan, meanwhile, lays out a five-phase approach, also designed around the White House plan and based in part on local conditions. Face covering and social distancing are mandatory until Phase 3. 

Chief Management Officer Lisa Hershman is responsible for moving the building from one phase to the next, but the document also delegates decision making to individual supervisors. 

For now, the Pentagon remains in “Phase 0,” Hershman said. “So far, we are counting about eight days of solid data and we are still in a downward regression, so right now that’s where things stand, but we’ve got a ways to go,” she said of the Pentagon’s current status. 

“Regardless of phase, commanders and supervisors at all levels are responsible for balancing mission requirements with the safety of the workforce and taking into consideration the phase determinations, independently determining when it is safe and appropriate for service members and DOD civilian employees to return to work spaces,” the Pentagon’s guidelines say.

Pentagon leaders are “encouraging people to express” any discomfort they may feel about returning to work safely, Hershman said. 

“We’ve talked to the leadership and said look, it’s up to you to determine how to manage your workforce,” she said.

Close to 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as of Tuesday.