The second case of the new coronavirus in the U.S. Virgin Islands was confirmed Monday by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. at his weekly news conference.
The territory’s first case, on St. Croix, was confirmed Friday. The case reported Monday took place in the St. Thomas/St. John District. Bryan said Monday that 20 more “persons under investigation” have been tested: three cases are negative, eight are awaiting results and nine more samples were just sent out.
No Curfew – Yet
Bryan said he is trying to avoid at all costs having to implement a curfew like the one now in effect on Puerto Rico, where the island shuts down from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. But whether or not he is able to avoid ordering such a curfew is up to Virgin Islanders and how well they abide by the recommendations for social distancing that are necessary to limit exposure to the new coronavirus.
“We are hoping for the best, but we are preparing for the worst in terms of the results,” he said.
To safeguard against any potential exposure, Bryan added that the government would adopt new guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control for the postponement or cancellation of large gatherings of 50 people or more for at least the next eight weeks.
That includes upcoming St. Thomas Carnival activities, which Bryan said are “postponed indefinitely.”
Bryan announced that all public schools in the territory will be closed beginning Wednesday and would remain so for at least three weeks. Reasoning that “the implications are the same” for businesses and schools, he encouraged business owners operating in a confined space to take “reasonable steps to curtail” entry to no more than 50 people at a time. Exceptions could be made for much larger spaces, which would allow residents to practice social distancing, but Bryan said that would have to be evaluated.
The government is looking at the implications of CDC recommendations on interisland ferry travel. Bryan said that while the ferries between St. Thomas and St. John will still run, residents shouldn’t take them “unless absolutely necessary” because of the number of other people on the small ships and the chances of spreading the virus.
“We will be seeking ways to reduce the density on the ferries until we can achieve a safe social distancing goal,” the governor added.
At this point, cruise lines have halted ship travel to the territory for the next month, but V.I. Port Authority Executive Director Carlton Dowe said that airports, which are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration, will still be open and running unless or until staff members are told otherwise. Bryan added that since passenger traffic at the airport is fluid, there has not been active screening, though airlines have been surveying passengers about where they’ve traveled.
Health officials once again urged residents not to travel if they are sick and, for those who have traveled, to contact the department if they are experiencing any symptoms. Anyone who has traveled to an area of concern – which Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion said at this point also includes states such as California and Washington along with countries ranging from China to the United Kingdom, Italy and the Middle East – to self-quarantine for at least 14 days and to contact one of the department’s epidemiologists for possible testing.
Phone numbers are 340-712-6299 or 340-776-1519.
Officials were also clear Monday about the social and economic impacts to the territory in the wake of the recommended social distancing measures. Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte said during the news conference those impacts have most immediately been seen in the airlift and hotel numbers. Up to Saturday, occupancy rates on timeshares were close to 100 percent, followed by hotels from 60 to 80 percent occupancy, but those numbers took a sharp decline Sunday into Monday. Flights coming in also went from full to nearly empty, he said.
The good news, Bryan said later, is that most of the territory’s major hotels still remain closed, which keeps large groups of employees from being laid off again, but on the other hand, the decline in visitors has dealt a blow to the local Airbnb industry, which has compensated for the lack of hotels since hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
Asked about the government’s financial stability, Bryan was candid in saying that the next few months would be “rigid.” While plans to pay out $34 million in income tax refunds and another $10 million to retirees could offer an economic boost that would take the burden off of tourism dollars, Bryan said that the federal government’s decision to push back the April 15 income tax filing deadline could create some liquidity issues.
There is an opportunity to receive some community disaster assistance funding, which Bryan said his administration would work with the Legislature to secure, but at this point, the territory has a budget of approximately $1 million in federal dollars that could be put toward response and prevention.
Bryan added later that the territory’s economic development also stands on the shoulders of its ongoing recovery, which necessitates, at this point, that government offices stay open to keep the federal dollars flowing.
Speaking during the news conference, Delegate Stacey Plaskett said there are a few pieces of legislation in the pipeline, one already signed that would provide immediate funding for public health officials who are still working, and a second awaiting approval that would allow for free testing, enhanced funding to federal programs like Medicare and the creation of an insurance program for unemployed or furloughed employees.
Meanwhile, negotiations are ongoing through her office on an economic package, which would use data provided by the V.I. Bureau of Economic Research to supplement the loss of revenues to small businesses, retailers, restaurants and hotels, among others, to stimulate economic growth.
V.I. Port Authority officials reassured residents that despite fears of food shortages, conversations with local food suppliers indicate there is not, nor is there expected to be, a food crisis in the territory.
“This global pandemic is evolving, the situation is very fluid and changes from minute to minute,” Bryan said. “But we are using real-time information to make the decisions necessary to protect our community. I am urging us all to remain prudent and vigilant, not fearful. If we take the information and do what we need to protect ourselves and the people we love, this too shall pass.”