Marine Cpl. Avery Luengo wipes downs gym on Camp Foster, in Okinawa, Japan, July 29, 2020.

Marine Cpl. Avery Luengo wipes downs gym on Camp Foster, in Okinawa, Japan, July 29, 2020. Marine Corps photo / Lance Cpl. Karis Mattingly

Some US Military Bases Begin to Loosen Mask Rules

As some states drop COVID restrictions, commanders from coast to coast are attempting to walk a safe line.

U.S. Marines at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, no longer have to wear masks inside many buildings on base if they’re fully vaccinated—including some gyms and most work facilities, a spokesman confirmed to Defense One.

The change, which was approved by the commanding generals of II Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Corps Installations East, marks a departure from the Defense Department’s February mask mandate, as well as Marine Corps rules for public areas. 

Camp Lejeune’s move to incentivize the vaccine comes as state and local leaders nationwide are relaxing or completely abandoning pandemic-safety rules on mask-wearing, social distancing, and occupancy limitations on public gatherings as more Americans become vaccinated and COVID-19 infection and death rates decline. 

But many U.S. military bases are maintaining their health protection guidelines despite changes outside their gates. Officials at Tyndall Air Force Base, in Florida, and Fort Hood, in Texas—two states where masks are no longer required off base—told Defense One they have not relaxed or modified any COVID-19-related rules. Officials also have made no changes at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the largest Marine Corps base on the West Coast, or any of the Hampton Roads-area Navy bases in Virginia. 

The disparity illustrates how U.S. military bases from coast to coast, like their local civilian counterparts, are relaxing COVID-19 living restrictions at vastly different paces.  

CDC guidelines have changed several times in recent weeks as more Americans become fully vaccinated and U.S. public health officials determine which pandemic social behavior rules are safe for relaxing. Current CDC guidelines state that fully vaccinated people in indoor public spaces “should continue to wear a mask that fits snugly against the sides of your face and doesn’t have gaps,” because the vaccination status or pre-existing conditions of others is not known. However, “you can gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask,” it reads. 

At Camp Lejeune, the new policy allows fully vaccinated uniformed and civilian employees of II MEF and MCI East to go without masks inside “controlled, non-customer-facing buildings” that belong to one of those two commands, said Nat Fahy, the spokesman for MCI East. Active-duty troops who have been fully immunized can exercise without a mask in “select fitness centers'' on base, Fahy noted, a decision that was made to maintain troop readiness. 

Defense One obtained a photograph from Camp Lejeune of a white board with a message written on it in three different colors of dry-erase marker. “Attention—Starting Mon, May 3rd, active duty troops who are fully vaccinated may enter without a mask,” it says. “Bring a vaccination card & active duty ID for entrance!” All other patrons must wear a mask, it states. 

Photo of a sign at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

It was not immediately clear where the sign was posted, though officials believe it is at a base gym. Masks are still required at the base exchange and commissary.

A military spouse confirmed to Defense One on Monday that two Marines were checking vaccine cards and IDs at the entrance to a popular gym in a Camp Lejeune family housing area. On the door remained an older sign saying masks are required for anyone to enter the facility. But now, active-duty troops who can prove they were vaccinated are given a stamp on their hands and their names are written on a sign-in sheet, then allowed to enter without a mask, the spouse said.

MCI East, headquartered at Lejeune, also oversees several east coast bases, including Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, in North Carolina, about 45 miles away. 

In a now-deleted post on the Marine Corps Community Services Cherry Point Facebook page, officials announced last week that starting April 27, one of the gyms on base was open to COVID-19 vaccinated patrons only, while a different gym on base would be open to non-vaccinated people.

Screenshot of now-deleted Facebook post.

But officials changed course and kept all gyms open to patrons, regardless of vaccination status, “after careful consideration,” Fahy said. “The command is currently mandating that all patrons wear masks when exercising in those facilities until further notice.” 

In February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin mandated that anyone at any military installation worldwide must wear a mask if not inside their own home or inside an enclosed office alone, except for brief periods when eating or drinking, or to show one’s face for identification purposes. However, the memo notes that exceptions to the policy may be granted when “necessary for military readiness” or “that are related to living on a military installation.” Those exceptions are to be approved only by “Defense Department Component heads,” which includes senior leaders like service secretaries, combatant commanders and heads of defense agencies, and only with mitigating safety measures, like additional social distancing or COVID testing. 

Marine Corps rules mirror the DOD directive and state that masks must be worn in “common areas or shared workspaces…and outdoor shared spaces. Marines and their family members are encouraged to wear masks in their barracks, family housing, or other shared residence locations when individuals who are not members of their household are present.” The Marine Corps policy allows any general officer or senior executive service member to grant exceptions. 

Federal installations are not required to follow state guidelines on COVID safety measures. Since the beginning of the pandemic outbreak, Defense Department officials at local bases have said they would work closely with local jurisdictions to ensure the safety of U.S. military personnel and family members on and off bases, but that their federal responsibilities would take priority. In May 2020, Georgia’s move to relax some of its rules to reopen some businesses like gyms and bowling alleys was a source of tension with leaders at Fort Benning, who maintained stricter protocols for service members.

North Carolina’s current rules for masking state: “As of April 30th, face coverings are required in all public indoor settings if there are nonhousehold members present, regardless of the distance away, unless an exception applies,” according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.  

The COVID-19 vaccine is optional for service members, and about one third of all U.S. troops offered the shot were turning it down in February, prompting some to suggest offering days off or other incentives for those who get the jab. In April, CNN reported that nearly 40 percent of Marines who had been offered the vaccine had said no.

President Joe Biden has sole authority to require troops to be vaccinated, but said Friday that he would leave the decision on whether to make the shot mandatory to the Defense Department, for now. “I think it’s going to be a tough call,” Biden told NBC’s Today Show.

Other services have found different ways to incentivize the vaccine. At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Washington, masks are required to use the gym, but certain gym equipment is now specifically designated for patrons who are fully vaccinated, I Corps spokesman U.S. Army Lt. Col. Neil Penttila said in an email to Defense One. But compliance with the rules relies heavily on the honor system and allows for some mask-less workouts.

“Anyone currently eligible to use our facilities can use the designated equipment upon completing the vaccination process,” Penttila said. But troops are “expected to voluntarily comply” with the safety guidance during normal duty hours. Only those who wish to register for 24/7 access to the gym are asked to provide proof they’ve been vaccinated.

The I Corps commander made the decision “based on guidance from his preventative medicine experts,” as a way to increase the amount of available equipment in the gyms, Penttila said. Anyone using the facility is still required to wear a mask, unless they’re “doing strenuous cardio training.” 

“The gyms are a key component to maintaining readiness, this is why it was important to find ways in which we could increase capacity while maintaining a safe environment,” he added.

Everyone receiving healthcare through the Defense Department became eligible for a shot April 19, and though DOD has said they don’t track the number of people who decline, they also said they’ve seen an increase in those getting the vaccine.

At Camp Lejeune, the vaccine is available to any DOD ID card holder 16 years old or older, Fahy said. 

As of April 30, more than 83,000 Marines were partially or fully vaccinated, according to Pentagon data.