USS Blue Ridge Makes a Carefully-Controlled Liberty Call in Okinawa

Image courtesy USN

Published May 26, 2020 1:14 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge pulled into Okinawa on May 24 for a "safe haven" liberty, the ship’s first port call in more than 70 days. 7th Fleet has set up a series of careful controls to reduce the risk of bringing COVID-19 on board, reflecting previous problems with coronavirus outbreaks in the Navy. 

While on liberty, Blue Ridge's sailors will have limited access to designated areas on the pier and a neighboring beach. This controlled “safe haven” liberty allows them off the ship while minimizing interaction with the outside world and mitigating the risk of contracting COVID-19. Ship’s personnel and 7th Fleet staff will not physically interact with anyone who is not part of the crew, including anyone from the base or the local community.

This port visit may be a model for future ships to do “safe haven” liberty, boosting sailors’ morale and quality of life while keeping COVID-19 hazard under control. An onboard coronavirus outbreak is a serious matter: in addition to the adverse health effects, it can effectively take a warship out of operation for weeks for disembarkation, quarantine and cleaning. 

“It is not lost on me how difficult a longer than normal deployment can be on top of the stress of the COVID pandemic on my sailors and their families,” said USS Blue Ridge's commanding officer, Capt. Craig Sicola. “These types of port calls are absolutely required to restore our mental readiness, stay healthy, and enable us to fight another day.”

Sailors will have access to limited areas of the base and to entertainment while in Okinawa, all while inside the designated safe zone or “bubble.”Wi-Fi is being installed on the pier so that they can use their phones and laptops. The beach will be open for swimming and sunbathing, and sporting events like softball, soccer, kickball, volleyball, and basketball will be available at the facilities on base.

Sailors were also given the opportunity to order personal items from the base's exchange and have them delivered to the pier. “Providing pierside delivery was an excellent way to help sailors get the items they need to keep them running their best during deployment,” said Lt. j.g Raymond Kosak, Blue Ridge’s disbursing officer.

All purchases will be delivered to a drop off station on the pier and fully disinfected by a qualified cleaning crew or be placed in large storage containers for an appropriate time that will ensure it is COVID-free.

With the exception of a few mandatory personnel to ensure the ship’s safe arrival, there will be no interaction with any personnel outside the designated liberty areas. For the docking process, all COVID mitigations will be in place to include social distancing, masks, gloves, and minimal interactions.

“It is important to realize that the Blue Ridge has maintained a COVID-free bubble since the outbreak,” said Sicola. “We are taking extreme caution to retain this bubble by not allowing any human interaction with personnel outside the bubble and maintaining strict disinfecting procedures for items and equipment on the pier.”

The visit to Okinawa comes after Blue Ridge broke its previous 64-day record of continuous time at sea, which was last set during the Vietnam War. Blue Ridge is the oldest operational ship in the Navy, and as the 7th Fleet command ship, she is normally tasked with maintaining diplomatic and military-to-military relationships in the Indo-Pacific.