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Navy Tries To Reopen Safely As Pandemic Still Freezes Many In Place

Sailor receives a temperature check before boarding the USS Bonhomme Richard,...

Credit: Defense of Department

Above: Sailor receives a temperature check before boarding the USS Bonhomme Richard, April 27, 2020.

A number of military families have been left in limbo as they wait to move to new bases. The Navy imposed a stop-movement order this spring because of the pandemic.

Now, the Navy's trying to restart travel. But not everybody is being allowed to move yet.

Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

Adaptability is a part of Navy life. For Kiley McPheron and her family, that has meant living in an RV, at a campground in the Laguna mountains — about an hour away from where her husband works at Naval Base Coronado.

“It has been difficult. There have been a lot of times when you have to tell yourself this is only temporary,” McPheron said. “This is not forever. Tomorrow is a new day.”

The McPheron’s sold their home when her husband received orders transferring him to Maryland. They were forced to move out in July, but by then the Navy had put his move on hold. With two dogs, two young children and no place to live, their best option was to buy an RV and search for campgrounds.

“Some places are just booked because people make these plans months and years in advance and we are trying to do this last minute,” she said.

Her family is one of thousands caught up in the military’s stop movement order, which was put into place by the Department of Defense in March. The Pentagon began loosening the restrictions in July.

About 40% of the 230 U.S. military installations worldwide have reopened. They met requirements like having fewer COVID-19 cases for at least 14 days. Bases also have to have certain basic necessities up and running, said Capt. Derek Trinque, assistant commander of Navy Personnel.

“There can’t be a local travel restriction,” he said. “They have to have essential services like child care.”

Families also need to have access to movers who can follow military guidelines. As they move, families are also subject to inspection to make sure people are wearing masks and following social distancing, he said.

All of the Navy bases in San Diego are still on the red list, meaning they aren’t open for normal travel, though the Navy is making exceptions.

“We have a waiver process,” Trinque said. “We were able to get sailors moved because they had a hardship or because they were essential to the mission of the new command.”

Waivers have helped dramatically clear the Navy’s backlog. The Navy originally expected it would take until sometime next year to move the nearly 24,000 waiting families. Now, it expects to have the rest of those families at their new bases by November.

The number of cases of coronavirus in the military has plateaued in the last week or so, though coronavirus cases had been surging through July, even as the Navy was pushing to get more sailors moving. Though the Navy is convinced it's reopening safely, Trinique said.

“Because we are taking the steps to keep people safe, I believe it is allowing us to make these moves,” he said. “Whereas before, (having) everyone stop moving really was the right answer.”

Still, determining why one base is open to travel and another base is closed can be confusing for military families. Early in the pandemic, the Pentagon stopped listing COVID-19 cases by base. In San Diego, along with the Navy, the Marine’s West Coast boot camp is still red-flagged but Marines are free to transfer in and out of Camp Pendleton.

Navy spouse Kellie Kopec is finally on her way to the East Coast from San Diego. She spoke from the road, after they finally left the West Coast.

“The unknowns, the unanswered questions,” she said. “No one really seemed to know what information to give us or what advice to give us. That type of thing. It was a lot of hurry up and wait.”

The pandemic left many families in limbo. Just like the McPheron’s, the Kopec’s also bought an RV when they needed a place to live, after they sold their house in San Diego. Now, they are finally traveling cross-country to Virginia with their 7 month old, with the help of a Navy waiver.

“Something that would be incredibly helpful and beneficial to a future pandemic or other extreme situation would be for the Navy to allow for case management in this,” she said.

That would give families a point of contact, like when sailors are deployed. The Kopecs will be required to self isolate for 14 days at their new base. The RV will make that easier, while other families wait for their turns to hit the road.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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