With an economy reliant on the U.S. and international travel industry, the Virgin Islands has double reason to fear the Coronavirus, known as COVID-19.
“The safety of our residents is first and foremost,” Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte said Friday, echoing statements from V.I. Health officials who have been monitoring the global spread of the disease, preparing for the possibility that it could manifest in the territory and advising the public on how to cope if it does.
But asked about how the virus could, and has, effected the travel industry, Boschulte said he is also “very concerned” about its economic aspects.
“It’s very important for us to be mindful of the role tourism plays” as the engine of the V.I. economy, he said.
As of this Sunday evening, there had been no confirmed or even suspected cases in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Last week there were reports of a suspected case in the British Virgin Islands.
The disease seems to have stabilized in China, where health officials first announced its discovery at the end of December. But it is spreading so rapidly across the world that health agencies and news outlets are giving daily and sometimes hourly updates.
Researchers still know little about it, but it appears to spread more easily than most virus-related illnesses and to be more deadly than most, particularly among the elderly and patients with compromised immune systems.
As of Friday, there were 19 confirmed cases in the U.S. in a geographically wide spread of states and some of those were not cases involving people who had recently been to countries where the virus was known to be present, but rather the result of infections transmitted locally. By Sunday, U.S. health officials were saying the virus may have been in the U.S. weeks before it was detected and that there could be hundreds of U.S. residents already infected.
The cruise industry was impacted early on in the crisis, with some ships that visited Asian ports denied docking in other countries.
Last week it happened in the Caribbean. Jamaica and the Cayman Islands turned away the Meraviglia, a ship of the Geneva-based MSC Cruises, because a crewmember had symptoms associated with the Coronavirus; the Dominican Republic denied entrance to a Fred Olsen Cruises ship over similar fears; and the British Virgin Islands refused entry to the Costa Favolosa which was carrying passengers from Italy, where the virus has a large presence.
As the overall stock market fell sharply last week, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. both reported a sharp drop in shares.
On Saturday the Washington Post reported major companies were beginning to cancel conferences and business travel within the U.S.
All of this “just heightens the level of concern we must have as a tourist destination,” Boschulte said. The question about the economic impact is “How long and how deep will that go?”
Initially, when the virus was affecting Asian regions, there was some speculation that there might be a short-term uptick in travel to other destinations, as travelers changed their plans to avoid known outbreaks.
“We’ve heard there is discussion” by some cruise lines about focusing more on the Caribbean, but there is nothing concrete, Boschulte said adding, “it takes a while for cruise ships to reposition.”
And there is no guarantee that the Caribbean will remain virus-free, of course.
“You’re OK until you’re not,” Boschulte said.
The commissioner noted that cruise passengers are only part of the territory’s tourism industry, and there is concern for overnight traffic also.
“Anecdotally we hear there is a softening” in advance bookings at V.I. hotels, he said, although as yet there is no hard data.
While financial implications are concerning, Boschulte reiterated the government’s primary focus is on the health of residents.
“We need to ramp up additional screening” of travelers into the territory, he said. “We continue to be diligent in ensuring we keep our borders protected.”