Why Anchorage COVID-19 infections prompted military leaders to enact stronger measures than the city

Army Barracks, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

Military commanders at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage are asking airmen and soldiers to mask up and avoid off-base establishments that don’t require masking, in response to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community.

JBER announced a public health emergency last week, as the base continues to vaccinate its military members under a mandate from the Secretary of Defense.

JBER Vice Commander Col. Dean Denter says, for now, the base commanders have only issued recommendations, but they might need to take further action if the COVID situation gets worse.

Read a full transcript of the conversation with minor edits for clarity.

Dean Denter: We are highly encouraging people that frequent businesses or establishments off the installation to wear a mask at those, and to be smart about where they go. So really limiting activity but no restrictions.

Currently both of us, I’m sure, watch the daily case count continue to rise in the local area and in the state of Alaska. That’s currently where we are, that’s subject to change. I’ve already read the numbers today, and I think that change may not be that far away.

Casey Grove: Oh, really?

Dean Denter: Yes.

Casey Grove: How would that work if people live off base and things like that?

Dean Denter: I myself, I live off base. So just like before, if you look back a year ago, we had some some orders and requirements, and that really limited people’s ability to dine in. At that time, we had a takeout only, or curbside pickup, as did much of the town and most of the eateries and other establishments that shut down. But if you leave off the installation, I could see if conditions don’t get better, we could be requiring mask wearing in facilities off the installation, too.

So again, not prohibiting you from going to an event or to the grocery store or what have you, but requiring individuals to wear a mask. And the public health emergency is is a tool that allows us to do that. So that allows the installation commander to put an order out where you have to wear a mask off the installation. Obviously, if you’re a military member, you’re held to a military order and discipline. But then with a public health emergency, you can mandate that those that don’t are not allowed to access the installation.

That’s what a public health emergency gives us the authority to do, if we were to do to go to that level.

Casey Grove: I imagine that that’s all focused on sort of preserving military readiness, what people would call military readiness, right?

Dean Denter: Correct. You know, it’s always about us.

And this is why oftentimes, we don’t align with Anchorage, or the Muni or state procedures. We may be more restrictive, there could be a point in time where we’re less restrictive, but we may be more restrictive, because as you mentioned, we have to protect the force that performs the mission.

But we’re also part of the community. We want to do our part to make sure that we’re not a source of COVID. We want to go really, above and beyond probably what you see off the installation just because we want to be responsible community members.

Casey Grove: It seems like what’s going on off basis is certainly going to affect folks at JBER and so I have to ask him, do you think that there’s a disconnect between your efforts there at JBER to keep servicemembers healthy, and then what the city of Anchorage is doing or not doing?

Dean Denter: Yeah, as I mentioned, we try to align with local, D.O.D., public health, emergency regulations. We are not necessarily in line because we have to protect the mission here. You know, I do see that potentially, we’re doing more than off the installation. But that’s just a prudent measure that we can take to to continue to keep the force safe here.

Casey Grove: Just to get back to what the community around JBER is doing, would it be safe to say that if there were maybe additional restrictions in Anchorage, that that would help preserve the readiness at JBER?

Dean Denter: Obviously, many of our cases do or are attributed to off installation activities. So anything that’s done off or outside the installation, which can help protect our force would would help protect the mission.

Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts.

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