US Navy Ordered Military Sealift Command To Stay On Ships Amid Pandemic The Navy has imposed strict rules on a small branch of civilian mariners. They're locked down on their ships and say it's an overreaction — and they're suing.

Civilian Mariners Say Strict Navy Coronavirus Restrictions Are Unfair

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt has nearly 1,000 coronavirus cases among the crew. The Navy wants to prevent outbreaks like that on other vessels, and one particular unit of the Navy responded by imposing rules on civilian employees who go to sea. They are civilian mariners, and they've been locked down on shipboard. NPR's Joe Shapiro explains what their job is and why they're unhappy.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The Military Sealift Command is a small part of the Navy with a crucial mission. The civilian mariners bring supplies to Navy ships around the world - the fuel, food, ammunition, even the mail - and they're key to repairing the Navy's fleet of aging ships. On March 21, the Navy admiral who runs the Military Sealift Command, the MSC, issued a gangway up order. The civilian mariners have been locked down on their ships ever since.

This wasn't a two-week quarantine of people who'd been exposed to the coronavirus. It was a move to stop an outbreak from starting by keeping CIVMARs - that's the name for civilian mariners - confined to their ships. And it's worked pretty well at stopping sickness, but the civilian mariners are furious. Three unions that represent them have filed a grievance against the Navy. Even when a ship is docked and on a Navy base, the mariners can't leave, even if their house is just minutes away. They can't see family. They say they can't go to medical appointments.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's very hard. It's hard times right now, as we're trapped on a ship, and we can't go anywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I live in my office. I live with my co-workers. I eat every dinner, every meal with my boss. There's nowhere for us to go. We have no escape.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I want to get off the ship and go to a bar and drink a couple of beers and have some real food for a change.

SHAPIRO: Those are some of the more than 20 civilian mariners we heard from on ships around the world. The ones we spoke to asked that we use their first names or not use their names at all because they feared retaliation, like one woman who was looking out the window as we spoke. Navy crew from the ship hers was supporting were on the pier jogging and exercising, but she wasn't allowed off her ship. She said it made her feel like a kid again, when her mother wouldn't let her go outside, and she watched the other kids outside playing.

And that's another reason the civilian mariners are upset. The lockdown applies only to them. While they're confined to their ships, other people - Navy personnel and contractors - come and go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You know, they restrict our liberty in the name of protecting us from coronavirus, but we are still exposed to the military personnel that goes home and come back to work. And the contractors that have some jobs to do on the ship - they go home, they come back.

SHAPIRO: That civilian mariner says the Navy personnel and the contractors don't always wear N95 masks. Everyone is screened before they get on a ship. Their temperature is taken. They're asked questions about symptoms, about whether they've been exposed to someone who's sick. But the Military Sealift Command confirmed to us that in the last few days, two civilian mariners at a Massachusetts shipyard tested positive for COVID-19, and it's thought they may have been exposed to infected outside contractors.

The MSC says any shortages of protective gear are sporadic. Many civilian mariners told us they have access to N95 masks, at least in the last few weeks. Others said they still can't get the proper protective gear, like Tom (ph), who works on a ship that's being repaired. He says until he can get the proper mask, he's not going to wear any covering.

TOM: Well, I figured that if I got to wear a cloth over my face like a bandit from the Old West, it's not really worth it.

SHAPIRO: The unions are asking for proper gear - also, in their legal grievance, for bonus pay for those confined to their ships. A spokesman for the MSC says there's been one good effect. There have been no large outbreaks among the civilian mariners on ships. A virus on any ship where people live and work in close quarters can spread quickly. On the USS Roosevelt, some 1,000 of the nearly 5,000-sailor crew have tested positive. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.