USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) arrives at White Beach Naval Facility, May 24. (U.S. Navy/MC2 Matthew Dickinson)

OKINAWA, Japan - U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) and embarked 7th Fleet staff pulled into Okinawa, May 24, making the ship’s first port visit in more than 70 days.

While on liberty, Sailors will have limited access to specific designated areas on the pier and neighboring beach. This type of “safe haven” liberty allows for quality of life and readiness, while strictly 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 people from the base and local community.

This port visit will pave the way for future ships to do “safe haven” liberty in a manner which Sailors’ morale and quality of life is considered while mitigating the risk of COVID-19.

“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 Blue Ridge 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.”

Blue Ridge’s MWR committee has worked diligently to ensure that, Sailors will have access to areas of the base and have entertainment available while in Okinawa, all while inside the designated safe zone or “bubble.”

Wi-Fi is being installed on the pier so that Sailors can use their phones and laptops. The beach will be open for Sailors to swim and lounge out on the beach, and sporting events like softball, soccer, kickball, volleyball, and basketball will be available at the facilities on base.

“A lot of great work has gone into planning this port visit,” said Blue Ridge’s senior MWR representative, Chief Navy Counselor Min Jun, from Davis, California.

Sailors were also given the opportunity to order personal items from Kadena’s Exchange and have it 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 recently broke its record of consecutive days at sea, which had previously been 64, last set during the summer of 1972 during the Vietnam War.

“Being underway this long has really opened my eyes to how the Navy operates. I'm so proud to be serving on the Flag Ship for U.S. 7th Fleet and even more excited to be able to get the opportunity to pull into Okinawa,” said Culinary Specialist 3rd Class Justine Hughes from Albany, Oregon. “The fact that this ship has taken on the challenge of maintaining our presence at sea during this time of worldwide crisis is very humbling and makes me feel like I have a bigger purpose in this military organization.”

Blue Ridge is the oldest operational ship in the Navy, and as the 7th Fleet command ship, is responsible for fostering relationships within the Indo-Pacific region.