The U.S. Virgin Islands will begin welcoming visitors back to its seaports, airports and hotels beginning June 1, and the V.I. Department of Health has issued a series of protocols and guidelines to inhibit the spread of COVID-19, the disease which caused the tourism shutdown in the first place.
Even with lists of procedures, some of the officials at Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation and Aging questioned if the territory was opening too soon, while others suggested the territory was opening too late.
V.I. Department of Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said epidemiological surveillance has demonstrated that COVID-19 was brought to the shores of the USVI from outside, as it was to other tourist destinations.
“We do view the reopening of hotels and the return of tourism as a possibility of increasing the risk of new infections in the territory,” Encarnacion said.
Sen. Dwayne DeGraff said he was happy to hear people want to come to the territory and that the territory was getting ready to open. But he also said he was “still extremely fearful that we are rushing and don’t have things in place.”
The alternative to reopening the territory is to remain closed, and officials said the loss of the tourism product in the territory has already cost the islands millions. West Indian Company, Ltd. President Anthony Ottley said that since March 14, when the Norwegian Epic left the WICO dock, the company has lost 60 ship calls carrying an estimated 191,000 passengers. This equates to a loss of more than $1 million in revenue to the company and nearly $35 million to the territory, Ottley added.
“In WICO’s 107-year history, we have endured two world wars, the transfer of the islands, a few economic crises and several natural disasters with only brief service interruptions. But this novel coronavirus outbreak, which prompted major cruise lines to suspend sailings and the Centers for Disease Control to issue a No-Sail Order, has caused the longest interruption in the company’s history,” Ottley said.
In anticipation of reopening, the Health Department set forth guidance for various businesses and prepared with the tourism industry to do everything to prevent a surge in new cases, Encarnacion said.
Before completing the air and seaport entry guidelines, the Health Department is working with the Port Authority to update the information card presented to passengers on arrival. The Department of Tourism has also created a comprehensive tourism guide to be distributed to new arrivals.
“Above all, our commitment is to protect the people of the Virgin Islands. So please know that any door that will be opened, as we move through each phase, can definitely be closed again if needed,” Encarnacion said.
Linked below is a list of updated guidelines and guidance prepared by the Health Department:
The Health Department is still updating guidelines for churches, incoming travelers and funeral homes. All businesses are still subject to the “no mask, no service” mandate and are encouraged by the Health Department to continue to provide what is needed for hand washing, sanitizing and disinfecting of frequently used surfaces.
All committee members – Sens. DeGraff, Myron Jackson, Javan James, Alicia Barnes, Oakland Benta, Steven Payne Sr. and Athneil Thomas – were present for the hearing.