Esper further restricts Pentagon access as coronavirus spreads
Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday upgraded the Pentagon’s health protection level to its second-highest setting, putting more restrictions on entering the building in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“Today we are elevating the Pentagon reservation status to Health Protection Condition C,” Esper told reporters at a press conference in the building.
“This limits the number of access points to the Pentagon and increases the amount of personnel who would telework, among a few other things.”
He added that the latest health protection level could include “some medical screening,” including temperature testing.
The move is the latest in a series of Department of Defense (DOD) measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 among its personnel.
On March 16, the DOD implemented new rules for who can enter the building itself, stipulating that all unofficial visits to the Pentagon — to include personal guests and friends of DOD personnel and contractors — are “suspended,” as are visits from international partners and visitors.
Prior to that, the department sought to cut staff in the building by encouraging employees to telework and to practice social distancing.
Esper said the number of personnel now working at the Pentagon is “down considerably, maybe 60-some percent if not more.”
“There is no intent whatsoever to limit the access to the press and we want to keep the building open for essential personnel and the media.”
As of Monday morning, 133 service members had tested positive for the coronavirus — nearly double the number from Friday — with seven in the hospital.
In addition, 44 civilian employees, 35 dependents and 31 contractors have the illness, with one contractor death on Saturday, the first military-related death from virus.
Esper said he had spoken with several infected service members and he was not worried about a slip in readiness as the illness continues to spread.
“As this virus ramps up and spreads, we’ll obviously see more and more impact of persons in our ranks. I’m confident that while it may have some impact on readiness, it will not affect our ability to conduct national security missions both at home and abroad,” he said.
The Pentagon has scrambled to prevent more coronavirus cases in the military. Earlier this month it suspended almost all nonessential travel for eight weeks for DOD personnel and families, limited access to military installations and canceled or scaled back exercises.
Still, there are now two Pentagon-related coronavirus cases, an active-duty airman and an Air Force contractor who both visited the building in recent weeks.