U.S. Sailors’ New Reality: Confinement on Land and at Sea

As the U.S. Navy tries to adjust the operational tempo of its aircraft carriers during a global pandemic, it is taking unprecedented measures to ensure its ships deploy infection-free. Following guidance from the Pentagon and Navy leadership, Rear Adm. George M. Wikoff, the commander of Carrier Strike Group Five in Yokosuka, Japan, this month ordered roughly 1,300 sailors from the carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan and its air wing into what he called “predeployment sequestration” in barracks at military bases in Yokota and Atsugi, according to documents obtained by The New York Times. The remaining crew members will be sequestered in waves in the coming weeks until the ship deploys, most likely in June.

The original plan directed that after 14 days of confinement, the sailors would move onto the moored ship while it prepared to deploy, according to the documents. However, additional directives show that on April 20 the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii, which commands all vessels based in the Pacific Ocean, including the Ronald Reagan, put a hold on anyone leaving isolation or quarantine regardless of his or her coronavirus status until further notice — meaning sailors now sequestered in the barracks are there indefinitely.

The U.S.S. Ronald Reagan typically deploys every year from April to October, stopping at ports across East Asia and doing naval training exercises with allied nations. In the middle of that deployment, the ship usually returns to Yokosuka for a month of maintenance and to give the crew a break. This year, however, the carrier, which has already had 16 sailors test positive for the coronavirus, delayed its departure by several weeks. Sailors have been told that all port visits are canceled, and that no one will be allowed to disembark the ship for the duration of the deployment, except for necessary supply runs, even when it returns to Yokosuka for brief maintenance visits. The sailors will quite likely be confined to the aircraft carrier until November.

All sailors deploying overseas will be required to do some form of 14-day sequestration before they depart, according to the Navy, including submarine crews and special operations units. The Ronald Reagan’s restrictions on sailors’ movements are some of the more severe steps being taken, especially for a deployment not scheduled to support continuing combat operations in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan. The U.S.S. Nimitz, a carrier based in Bremerton, Wash., was scheduled to deploy in June, but the ship has delayed its departure by at least two weeks as it wrestles with quarantine procedures and procuring enough coronavirus test kits for the crew. The Nimitz’s sailors are also being sequestered until the aircraft carrier departs.

Vice Adm. Phillip G. Sawyer, a deputy chief of naval operations and a former commander of the Seventh Fleet in Japan, told The Times that the Navy was following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection on handwashing, face coverings and other preventive measures, as well as adding additional procedures to limit the potential for the coronavirus to enter its ships, submarines and aircrews. “We learn more everyday,” Sawyer said. “We will continue to evolve our measures to conform to the best practices that we know. We have to be able to protect our force, and we have to be able to conduct the missions that the nation requires of us.”

The Navy is still contending with a major cluster of coronavirus infections aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, the aircraft carrier that has been moored in Guam since late March after an outbreak of the virus while it was at sea. As of Wednesday, a total of 777 sailors from the carrier had tested positive for the virus. A Navy spokesman said that 120 of those sailors had tested positive after leaving quarantine, which led military leaders to re-evaluate the criteria they used for quarantining those suspected of coming in contact with an infected person and for sequestering sailors preparing to deploy.

It is unclear whether the public will be informed of any outbreak of the coronavirus aboard the Ronald Reagan, or any of the Navy’s other ships, while it is at sea. On March 30, the Pentagon announced that it would not make public any information about coronavirus outbreaks in specific units, but in practice it has continued to provide data about cases aboard the Theodore Roosevelt and the hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort, which is docked in New York City. According to the documents obtained by The Times, the Navy’s Pacific Fleet commander in Hawaii declared that all information about coronavirus cases aboard Navy ships, aircraft and submarines was now classified at the “confidential” level. A Navy spokesman would not confirm that specific classification directive, but said that sick crew members were allowed to tell their families if they had contracted the virus.

Two Navy officials who were not authorized to speak to The Times raised concerns about how the Ronald Reagan’s commanders would handle the exceptional levels of stress being put on the nearly 5,000-person crew by confining everyone to the ship for up to eight months. A Navy spokesman said that the ship would depart with three chaplains, a clinical psychologist and a counselor, but that it still did not have an assistant for the clinical psychologist on board. The spokesman did not elaborate on specific measures that the ship’s commanders planned to take to keep up morale, but Adm. Michael M. Gilday, the service’s top officer, gave a statement to The Times addressing the issue. “Our sailors and their families are resilient,” he said. “I know they will set an example for their friends, their neighbors and in their local communities on how to make personal sacrifices in the service of the collective good.”

The Navy officials also raised concerns that the indefinite extension of the two-week sequester period already in effect for all aircrew members would further harm the aircrews’ ability to safely fly planes and helicopters, especially after some of the crews’ predeployment training on Guam was cut short last month. The aircrews typically need to fly at least once every two weeks to stay current in their qualifications, but they require even more flight time in the critical run-up to deployment, when they practice landing on an aircraft carrier at sea.

During the 14-day sequester period directed by Wikoff, sailors are not allowed to leave their rooms, according to the documents. (“A great time for self-improvement,” they say.) Packed two or three to a room, sailors are allowed to bring a computer, a tablet and a phone with them, but alcohol and tobacco products are banned, as are deliveries of care packages. They are also prohibited from taking and posting photos of their living quarters to social media sites. All sailors will be tested for the coronavirus and must have a negative test result before boarding the ship, but the recent directive from Pacific Fleet has made it unclear what the new criteria for leaving confinement will be.

The Navy’s efforts to keep at least one of its 11 carrier strike groups combat-ready has meant extending the deployment of the group supporting the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman; on April 13, the service announced the ship would stay at sea to keep its crew free from the coronavirus. The strike group had been on its way back to its home port in Norfolk, Va., after a five-month deployment. Sawyer declined to say when it would be allowed to return. “The crew will be the first to know,” he said.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.

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