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Social media photos from SC military bases show little concern for social distancing

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A Monday, March 23, 2020, photo shows recruits at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina practicing martial arts despite guidance to practice social distancing when possible. It comes after two cases of the novel coronavirus were detected at the training base this week. Provided/MCRD Parris Island

South Carolina's military bases are finally facing a harsh reality: The coronavirus is in their backyard and they need to contain it. 

Joint Base Charleston, Shaw Air Force Base, Fort Jackson, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort all have at least one case of the deadly virus.

They must continue their missions while taking on a new one of fighting the virus. But social media photos from some of the installations show little concern for social distancing amid necessary training.

Because of the living and training conditions on military installations, it's not a matter if COVID-19 will spread but how well the bases can contain the spread of it. 

While social distancing and breaking up large groups of 10 or more have been recommended by nearly every national public health agency, images posted to Facebook and Twitter from some of the bases show little acknowledgement of personal space. 

A live video of a graduation ceremony Thursday at Fort Jackson shows new soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder shouting their Army creed next to each other within earshot. 

The ceremonies have been closed to the public for the past two weeks.

The base has taken some precautions such as giving soldiers personal hand sanitizer dispensers, limiting food to carryout only and increasing the distance between bunks. It also has stopped hand-to-hand-combat training and is taking preliminary health screenings at all gates and limiting access to essential personnel. 

A March 23 photo posted on Marines' boot camp Twitter account shows recruits putting each other in bear hugs and choke holds during martial arts training. 

Recruits at Parris Island still sleep in barracks and bunks, but 6 feet of distance has been placed between them. Preliminary screening for the virus is done after enlistment and again when recruits arrive on the island. Religious services are now streamed to avoid congregations and potential coronavirus spread.

Fort Jackson and Parris Island graduate upward of 60,000 men and women annually, making them potential hot spots for exposure. 

Retired Col. John Dorrian, a former Air Force officer and vice president of communications at The Citadel, said public health crises are obstacles for military bases. But some training facilities are actually in good positions to contain the spread. 

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"They're not going anywhere," Dorrian said. "They're contained and not getting exposed to outside factors. But it can get complicated with trainers leaving base."

Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter shared pictures of its South Carolina crew standing next to each other on the flight line during training at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. 

"Don’t worry, we took all necessary precautions upon their return," Shaw said in a Facebook post last week.

Gov. Henry McMaster recommended that all restaurants move to carryout only in the state. It wasn't until Friday that the Marine air base in Beaufort announced it would follow that same policy in its mess hall. It was more than a week after the first positive case at the station was made public. Little else has changed on the base.

"Currently, flight operations are still normal," 1st Lt. Kevin Buss said. "MCAS Beaufort has not restricted access to the installation."

Social distancing and disbanding large groups has not been mandated by the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has left the directive to base commanders but advised them to be mindful of the practice. 

"If you can avoid putting ... a large number of people in small rooms, you should do it," Esper said Wednesday. "If you're a young NCO or young officer and you see something that doesn't make sense, raise it privately with your chain of command and say, 'Hey, maybe we should do this differently next time.'"

The Pentagon on Thursday said it had 280 military cases of the coronavirus, an increase of 106 cases since Tuesday. Of those, 15 service members have been hospitalized, it added.

Several bases, including Shaw Air Force Base and Joint Base Charleston, have implemented new restrictions that limit access to essential personnel only, medical patients and family members. 

"Our curve is not flattening, and that's why we went to (Health Protection Condition Charlie) today, which includes restrictions on large gatherings and includes additional social distancing," Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon said Wednesday.

But, ultimately, it is up to individual unit commanders to decide what is best. 

Dorrian spent 20 years in the Air Force. He helped in the European theater plan for a response to the H1N1, otherwise known as the swine flu. 

"The military spends a lot of time preparing," Dorrian said. "But the enemies of America don't hunker down when there is a global pandemic. The protection of our country is a no-fail mission." 

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly reports on the military community across South Carolina. He also covers growth and development in Berkeley County. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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