With five new COVID-19 cases reported in the territory, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. pleaded with residents Monday to wear masks and practice social distancing, and said the government is prepared to shut down businesses who don’t comply or allow their customers to violate the guidelines still in place.
Bryan said he has been peppered with emails, calls and texts from residents concerned about the spike as restrictions into the territory for leisure travelers have been lifted. However, he said during Monday’s weekly news briefing that the majority of the overall cases have been local, with only two in the most recent batch travel related. Three of the others are classified as “community-acquired,” meaning those infected don’t appear to have traveled or come in contact with anyone confirmed to have had the virus, while the remaining case was an individual who had been exposed.
Overall, the territory is tracking six active COVID-19 cases and conducted 2,593 tests, of which 2,502 were negative and 76 positive. There are currently 15 tests pending, and one patient at each of the territory’s hospitals being treated for the virus.
“What is of particular concern is that we have seen three community-acquired cases where we don’t know how these individuals got it, and this is a serious breach,” Bryan said. “We haven’t seen this in the last two months.”
Health officials have notified residents who may have come in contact with two of the individuals – one who visited Hangovah Daiquiris on St. Croix on June 17 and the other on St. John who rode the 7 a.m. ferry on June 18 – to monitor for symptoms and get tested if they feel ill.
Realistically, any attempts to find new revenue streams and diversify the economy over the past several years have not been fruitful, keeping the focus on tourism, which Bryan said is the “most significant way of introducing new dollars.”
At this point, the government is $20 million behind in disbursements to semi-autonomous and central departments and agencies, and while some federal dollars have been used to pay for salaries of workers associated with the pandemic response, the pushing back of the tax deadline to June 19 has kept collections low, Bryan added. Meanwhile, the state of emergency is expected to be extended again after the next deadline on July 11, but residents should prepare to pay their bills as restrictions for landlords against eviction from late rent, or the disconnection of utilities, might not be included, he said.
“We have a very fragile economy,” the governor said. “We have struggled to recover and opening our doors is essential to giving us all a fighting chance to survive on these islands. But it requires the full cooperation of all of us, and we have a personal responsibility to each do our part to make this work.”
And if not, shelter in place will return, and businesses will be closed, he added. Bryan said of particular concern was the lack of safety guidelines being enforced in local bars, where customers have been seen without face coverings and sitting close together.
“Failure to do so puts lives in jeopardy,” Bryan said. “We had to close one establishment this weekend and will continue to do so if it means protecting our community. We will also restrict operations indefinitely of businesses who don’t comply.”
In any situation, wearing a mask that can fully cover the nose and mouth is key, as the virus spreads through droplets, he added.
“Stop fraternizing with strangers without facial coverings and spacing,” the governor added.
Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion added Monday that the plume of Sahara dust coating the territory could also cause COVID-like symptoms in residents with preexisting respiratory conditions, like asthma. Encarnacion encouraged those who could be impacted to stay at home, wear a mask, have an asthma plan and get tested if necessary.