- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2020

At high-level staff meetings these days at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley are careful to position themselves six feet apart at minimum. At least they’re in the same room.

As the Pentagon, with a massive local workforce, bases around the world and ships in every sea, grapples with the logistics of a global coronavirus scare, other military leaders who would normally squeeze around the conference table found themselves in other rooms, communicating via teleconference.

It’s called “social distancing” and it’s all the rage these days in the Pentagon.

“We’re encouraging everyone to practice,” it, said chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.

“It was to show that we can continue to do this while still practicing good risk prevention measures,” Mr. Hoffman said.

According to military health officials, three active-duty service members have tested positive for the coronavirus. Also testing positive were four military dependents, one civilian employee and a civilian contractor.

The numbers may be small at this point, but concern over the coronavirus is causing disruptions within the defense community.

Mr. Esper on Wednesday announced he was postponing a scheduled trip to India, Uzbekistan and Pakistan over coronavirus concerns, saying he felt obliged to remain at his post in Washington and help manage the Defense Department’s response.

The nearly 25,000 military and civilian employees working inside the Pentagon are being encouraged to remain two arms’ lengths apart to minimize the risk of spreading the disease. Even the chairs in the Pentagon briefing room were spread out so reporters wouldn’t violate the new six-foot standard.

“That’s not our rule. That’s the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendation,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon. “We’re not creating anything remarkable here.”

Even the most junior military members are finding their lives turned disrupted by fears over the coronavirus. The Air Force and the Navy won’t allow families to attend basic-training graduation ceremonies until further notice. Also, the new sailors won’t be allowed to take leave and must immediately report to their next assignment, officials said.

Think tanks and military trade associations in Washington also are feeling the impact of the coronavirus. They tend to feature large crowds that could spread the disease. The Brookings Institution canceled a presentation by Gen. David Petraeus, the former CIA director, over health concerns about the coronavirus.

The Association of the U.S. Army canceled its Global Force Symposium and Exposition that would have begun next week in Huntsville, Alabama.

“For the health and safety of all of our members and the participants in Global Force, canceling next week’s event is, regrettably, the right decision,” said retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, president of the association.

The impact isn’t limited to the U.S. commanders in Africa said they are scaling back — but not canceling — a major multinational exercise later this month that is supposed to involve nearly 10,000 troops from more than a dozen countries.

“Modifying the exercise still improves readiness while minimizing risk to protect both U.S. and partner forces,” AFRICOM commander Army Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said in a news release. “While the scope of the exercise will adjust, our commitment to our African partners endures.

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

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