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Barbers At Camp Pendleton Are Working Despite COVID-19 Concerns


As some barbershops and hair salons reopen across this country, it is natural for people to ask, is a haircut really an essential service? For U.S. Marines at a base in Southern California, the answer is yes. Here's Steve Walsh of our member station KPBS in San Diego.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Over the last month, the Marines have canceled joint exercises. At firing ranges, social distancing is now observed. At Camp Pendleton, there is now a stay-at-home order to limit movement, much like the rest of California. But there is one constant. Barbershops on base are open. Colonel Holt is the deputy commander for Marine Installations West.

JEFF HOLT: Our commandant allows us to continue to do haircuts. And it's more than just appearance. There's also a hygiene aspect to that. But we have to protect ourselves when getting haircuts.

WALSH: The barbershops remain open despite a public rebuke from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. This was during a recent Pentagon briefing with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


MARK ESPER: What is going on? What don't you guys understand?


ESPER: You need to suspend haircuts - right? - for whatever period of time.

WALSH: The comment was directed at Camp Pendleton after a video appeared online showing Marines lining up for their high and tight. The Marines say they're taking extra precautions and that the barbershops will remain open. Again, Colonel Jeff Holt.

HOLT: The image of the Marine also is to look sharp in uniform. And we are currently - have the authority to continue the barbershop operations. Each installation commander has been decentralized and offered that.

WALSH: Beyond haircuts, the Pentagon allows individual commanders to make certain calls as the military tries to balance limiting exposure to the virus with staying actually ready to fight. At the end of March, General David Berger ordered the Marines East Coast bootcamp at Parris Island to stop taking new recruits after an outbreak of coronavirus. At the same time, the West Coast bootcamp was still having a new class fly commercial to San Diego. Bootcamp spokesperson Captain Martin Harris explains why.

MARTIN HARRIS: Why we're to continue to train is because it's essential to make Marines. When you have a Marine, they got to go through an extensive entry-level training process. And it's our responsibility to provide trained and equipped Marines to serve in the Fleet Marine Force to protect the nation's assets all over the world.

WALSH: Now in the last few weeks, the Marines East Coast bootcamp has since reopened to new recruits, though with even more precautions, including masks for drill instructors, while the West Coast bootcamp, nicknamed the Hollywood Marines, is going through its own outbreak with some 50 recruits testing positive for coronavirus. Even in the Marine Corps, nonessential workers are supposed to stay at home. But each service - and in many case, each commander - decides who or what is essential. Colonel Holt at Camp Pendleton says each Marine commander needs that kind of flexibility.

HOLT: We do believe in the chain of command. And the chain of command is making those decisions about who they need to bring and who needs to telework within their respective units.

WALSH: It can create inconsistencies. Like, in the outside world, gyms are closed down. Food is carry-out only. Childcare is closed to anyone who isn't deemed essential. But the barbershops remain open, even though just down the coast, the Navy shut down its barbershops weeks ago. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF I/O'S "RTE. 89") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.