FORT BENNING, Ga. – Although Fort Benning has banned social, recreational and other nonessential visits as a precaution against COVID-19, authorities here are allowing certain visits in what they deem special circumstances.
Residents can ask authorities to allow a such a visit by sending an email, and answers are given within about two days or less, officials here said.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Fort Benning saw thousands of visitors drive through its gates daily. Many came for military graduation ceremonies, family days, and other events that are a year-round staple of the post’s ever-busy calendar of events.
But beginning last month and continuing into April, to minimize the spread of COVID-19, officials adopted an array of measures, in place until further notice.
They’ve banned large gatherings, cancelled graduation ceremonies, restricted travel by the Fort Benning community to official business and “essential” medical and other errands. Social distancing and wearing of face coverings are now required. Most employees are assigned to telework to further reduce risk of exposure, and many services reduced and offices closed.
“The purpose of our restrictions is to reduce the likelihood of the virus coming on post, and exposure to our Soldiers, our families and all our employees,” said Col. Matthew Scalia, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Benning.
“We still have a mission for the Army and for the nation, we are conducting here,” he said. “And such an outbreak would certainly be very disruptive to the readiness of the Army.”
Not currently allowed on post under the restrictions are those wanting to:
• Make social visits to persons stationed at Fort Benning or visit Soldiers in training.
• Take part in recreational activities, like bingo, bowling, hunting, fishing, or golfing.
• Go to the movie theater or other entertainment venues.
• Dine at the post’s restaurants and other eating places.
“Visitors who are here for social, entertainment or recreational purposes will be denied,” said Scalia.
“It is those who are coming on for a real need – and not even necessarily an emergency – but just for us to continue to live our lives, if it’s tutoring, if it’s long-term care, if it’s specialized treatment, things of that nature.”
Categories of visitors who are allowed include:
• Those giving health care services of various types, including for example, providing physical therapy or working with “special needs” family members, among other examples.
• Baby-sitters, nannies and au pairs.
• Those making deliveries, a category that includes mail, parcels, groceries or medications to residents’ homes.
• Moving trucks and trucks transporting gas, equipment and supplies, including those bringing merchandise for the commissary and post exchange.
• Patients of the VA clinic on post.
• Employees newly assigned to Fort Benning and scheduled to in-process through the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center, or CPAC.
• Local city buses.
However, residents may want a visit of a type not already approved for access, and officials are ready to consider those.
“We understand that there are very specific individual situations that we can’t address in a simple policy,” said Scalia.
“So, though it is important we take the measures to protect the force, protect our families, protect our operations here, we do consider individual circumstances,” he said. “So for example, though visitors are not coming on post, exceptions would be made for visitors who are coming for a specific purpose, essential to a family.
“There’s the example given of a mother coming to help her daughter who’s giving birth, a family coming to help another, in any individual needs they may have, medical needs, watching children, some long-term visit, there are all accepted reasons and our supervisors at the Visitor Center understand this and are operating with that intent, to be able to make these decisions on the spot.”
Fort Benning residents who want to seek permission for someone to visit them email Fort Benning’s security staff at: usarmy.benning.imcom-hq.mbx.des-access-control, explain the need, and then wait a day or two for a clear yes-or-no answer, said Jim Webster, Physical Security Division Chief at USAG Fort Benning’s Directorate of Emergency Services, or DES.
“As far as the time frame, it usually takes no more than a day or two,” he said. “It’s not a lengthy process. They’ll at least get the answer back, ‘yes it is,’ ‘no it isn’t,’ and what the next step is.
If DES grants the pass, it can be picked up at the Lindsey Creek Visitor Control Center kiosk. Pick-up typically takes under three minutes.
Another option is for the resident to go to the Lindsey Creek Visitor Control Center and tell the guards there they’d like to arrange permission for a visitor.
But email is the easier option, Webster said.
“If they’ve got time to plan it, their first option, send an email, would be the best option for them,” he said. “It saves them a trip to the visitor center.
Either way, the request should be made well before the desired visit, said Webster.
“Anything we can do in advance, it just makes it easier for everybody involved,” he said. “I mean, there’s enough stress going on at this time, and then expecting the birth of a child, we can work this through very quickly.”
And the request wouldn’t necessarily have to involve a new baby or a health-related need, so residents who think they need a visit from someone but are unsure whether the person would be allowed in, should not hesitate to send the email, said Webster.
“Anything that they’re fearful that they’re not going to be able to get an access pass, if they contact those folks, we can tell them yes or no, and if the answer is yes, then they will assist them” with the next steps, he said.
DES has been approving a high rate of requests during the pandemic, Webster said.
But he cautioned that anyone wanting to visit an on-post resident, even saying they want to help with a new baby, will not be admitted if the proper arrangements haven’t been made.
The email to DES applies to requests for a visit of under 30 days, but should a resident want a visit for 30 days or longer, there’s an additional step needed, Webster said.
They must also submit a Guest Sponsorship Request form to The Villages of Benning housing management. That requirement did not come about because of the COVID-19 pandemic but is a normal feature of the lease tenants sign to live in Family housing on Fort Benning.
“It’s generally for people that have children, and new babies, and they want their parents to come, but it’s also like somebody being sick and they want a family member to come help take care of them. Just general reasons,” said Denise Bleiler, regional property manager with The Villages of Benning.
“If somebody has a baby, for example, and wants their mother to come and live with them for 30 days, 60 days or 90 says, something like that, they come in and they fill out a Guest Sponsorship Request,” she said. Visits beyond 90 days can also be requested, she said.
“They state the reason, who they are, if there’s any relationship to the person, the reason they want to stay,” said Bleiler. “And how long they want to stay. And then we do run a background check, because we have to make sure they’re permitted to be on base, that they’re not a criminal, sex offender, all of that.
“As long as the criminal history check comes back okay, it’s actually forwarded up to me, and I approve it,” she said.
In another matter involving admittance to Fort Benning, officials have taken steps to keep the post open to those who can’t renew their identification cards because of that service has been halted during the pandemic.
Accordingly, those card holders are being issued passes at the Visitor Center or at Fort Benning’s other gates, known as access control points. The passes are valid for 90 days and must be presented at the gates along with the expired identification card.
“We understand that their ID card’s expired,” said Webster. “We have a system. We take the ID card, we look at it, and then we have a special pass we can issue. So that they can get access to the post still. They come to the gate and we take care of it.”
Contractors can likewise request passes online, or at the Harmony Church Contractor Visitor Control Center, open Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. If the online pass is granted, it can be picked up there.
Other members of the Fort Benning community are holders of U.S. military common access cards, or CACs.
As of April 16, CAC-holders whose cards are due to expire within 30 days can now renew them through the RAPIDS Self-Service ID Card Office Online.
The system will update both the security certificates for their CAC and for their official email, said Taranail Weaver, chief of the ID Card Branch with USAG Fort Benning’s Directorate of Human Resources.
Should users run into technical problems with the site, they can call 866-738-3222, said Weaver.
“And then it’s a step-by-step guide,” she said. “Their certificates will update to 30 September, 2020, and their email will update also. That will minimize their having to come in to the ID office.”
But the online renewal is only for CACs that have not expired, said Weaver.
Those with an expired CAC must renew it at the main ID card office inside the Soldier for Life Center, building 9230.
“If the CAC is expired, they’ll have to come and get a new one,” said Weaver.
She said those with questions can call the ID card office at 706-545-9085.