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Eglin, Tyndall move to mission-essential postures as COVID-19 cases rise

Jim Thompson
jthompson@nwfdailynews.com
Northwest Florida Daily News

EGLIN AFB — Two major Air Force installations in Northwest Florida, Eglin Air Force Base and Tyndall Air Force Base, have scaled back their operations in light of an increasing number of COVID-19 cases at the installations and in their surrounding communities.

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Meanwhile, two other major area military facilities, Hurlburt Field, headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command, located just west of Fort Walton Beach, and Naval Air Station Pensacola, remain in careful postures in connection with the coronavirus pandemic.

All four of the major local military installations either are now, or have been for some time, at Health Protection Condition (HPCON) Charlie. (NAS Pensacola is at the slightly less restrictive HPCON Charlie Minus).

HPCON Charlie is at the midpoint of the military’s five-step scale for addressing public health emergencies. According to the Department of Defense, HPCON Charlie should be implemented when an area is “experiencing sustained community transmission” of, in this case, COVID-19, a serious respiratory illness caused by the spreading new coronavirus.

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One of the consequences of HPCON Charlie, according to DoD guidance, is “severely restricted access to military installations.”

On Tuesday, Brig. Gen. Scott Cain, commander of the 96th Test Wing at Eglin AFB, and also the installation commander, announced that the installation was returning to a “mission essential” posture, limiting base access to “official business only” and reverting to a “max(imum) telework” approach to getting the installation’s work done.

Cain said his decision was based on “a steep rise in the number of COVID-19 positive cases in Team Eglin and in this community.”

According to state data, 666 postive COVID-19 cases have been reported in Okaloosa County, which hosts the main part of Eglin AFB, since the pandemic began. In just the last two weeks, the county has recorded 318 positive COVID-19 cases.

And in neighboring Walton County, where part of the installation lies, and where a number of its personnel reside, a total of 245 COVID-19 cases had been recorded as of Wednesday. In just the last two weeks, the county has reported 77 COVID-19 cases, with 28 of those cases reported on Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, the command team at Panama City’s Tyndall Air Force Base announced that installation leadership had made a “decision to transition back to Health Protection Condition (HPCON) Charlie and Phase 1 of our three-phase reopening plan.”

Across Bay County, host community for Tyndall AFB, 231 new COVID-19 cases have been reported within the last two weeks, bringing the total number of cases since the pandemic began to 384.

Under Tyndall AFB’s Phase 1, non-mission-essential personnel will continue to work from home, as will people who may be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Additionally, common spaces at Tyndall AFB are closed, and gatherings are limited to 10 people or fewer, with social distancing practices in place. Also, all facilities and equipment will be cleaned at shift change, or on a daily basis.

As at Eglin, the decision to return to more restrictive operations at Tyndall AFB is based, according to a message to the installation’s personnel,. on the fact that the “number of cases of COVID-19 and the percent testing positive in our local community and state are increasing.”

The message, from Col. Greg Moseley, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing, Tyndall AFB’s host unit, along with wing vice commander Col. Jefferson Hawkins and Chief Master Sgt. Kati Grabham, the wing’s command chief, includes a request for help from Tyndall personnel.

“As we approach the (Fourth of July) holiday weekend,” the message reads, in part, “be mindful of social distancing, wearing masks, frequent hand washing or sanitizing and most importantly, making smart decisions.”

At Hurlburt Field, Col. Jocelyn J. Schermerhorn, who took command of the 1st Special Operations Wing, the installation’s host unit, on June 8, has been in touch with installation personnel regarding COVID-19 via social media.

But according to a Tuesday email from the 1st Speical Operations Wing’s public affairs office, “At this time, Hurlburt Field is not in mission essential status, but remains at minimum necessary manning to conduct the mission, with maximum teleworking encouraged.”

The email goes on to note that if Schermerhorn “determines that Hurlburt will enforce more restrictions, to include reduced manning, we will inform all stakeholders promptly.”

Last week via Facebook, Schermerhorn noted that while “Hurlburt Field has made a deliberate effort to reopen ... Recent increases in COVID-19 cases have put a hold on further reopening.”

As with Tyndall’s leadership, Schermerhorn went on to note that the help of Hurlburt airmen is needed to avoid “returning to a more restricted posture.”

Schermerhorn urged Hurlburt personnel, while both on base and off, to wear a mask, or practice physical distancing if unable to wear one, to wash their hands and clean their work centers, and to avoid confined gatherings of more than 10 people. Schermerhorn also urged airmen to stay home if they become symptomatic or have been in contact with a positive COVID-19 case.

“Now more than ever, ” Schermerhorn wrote, “I need you to demonstrate the discipline to protect your wingmen and our mission. Following these guidelines on and off-base is mission critical.”

In Escambia County, host community for NAS Pensacola, where 1,952 COVID-19 cases have been reported since the beginning of the pandemic, 810 new COVID-19 cases have been recorded in just the past two weeks, with 191 of those cases reported on Tuesday alone.

At NAS Pensacola, the HPCON Charlie Minus status under which the installation has been operating for some time gives individual unit commanders some discretion in deciding on mission-essential personnel and related issues, according to installation spokesman Jason Bortz.

Under Navy guidance, HPCON Charlie requires maximizing telework plans, cancellation of large public gatherings on installations such as NAS Pensacola, approval of leave and travel on a case-by-case basis, and issuing instructions for personnel to avoid large public gatherings and to practice social distancing.

In an “all hands message” issued June 25, the Navy Region Southeast command office noted, “it is imperative that we do not forget our individual responsibilities to protect our shipmates. Every one of us must hold ourselves, and each other, accountable for our actions toward containing COVID-19 and not allowing it in our workplaces.”