The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association held a virtual panel Tuesday, sharing the U.S. Virgin Islands’ reopening protocols with other members of the region, providing insights on reigniting tourism in the Caribbean.
According to Vanessa Ledesma, the chief operations officer of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, the USVI was chosen as an example because it was one of the few of the Caribbean islands that started its open doors phase in June.
Ledesma was joined on the panel by Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte, President of the USVI Hotel and Tourism Association Lisa Hamilton and Assistant Tourism Commissioner Alani Henneman-Todman.
Ledesma asked Boschulte how the USVI had been so successful managing COVID-19, and he replied, “We’ve been fortunate in terms of our community being very respectful of the governor’s orders and we followed the protocols.”
Boschulte introduced the USVI’s phased approach to reopening. He detailed the territory’s guidelines, including the fact that establishments are only allowed 50 percent capacity or 50 people and the no-mask, no-service policy that the territory has in place to slow the spread of the virus.
He emphasized the importance of the no-mask, no-service policy, noting how quickly the coronavirus resumed its spread in the U.S. after some states reopened too quickly, and with a lot of opposition to mask-wearing.
Ledesma asked Boschulte how stringently no-mask, no-service is being enforced across the territory and he replied, “That is one of the most difficult enforcement practices we have, and when I say difficult, meaning, bars and restaurants are a big part of our attractions and the beach. Those are places that are very difficult to enforce at all times, the wearing masks.”
He returned to the topic later in the conference saying, “Our biggest challenge are the bars late in the evening. We do sense that people tend to relax the later the day goes and the more the alcohol flows.”
On the beaches, he said, people are generally maintaining the six-feet social distancing gap.
The no-mask, no-service policy is not a nationwide mandate, with each state, and sometimes each city within a state, setting their own rules. Because of that, there have been instances where travelers have arrived in the territory not aware that it is required in the USVI. According to Boschulte, in most instances when informed about the policy in the territory travelers abide by the Virgin Islands standard.
Henneman-Todman was asked about protocols that travelers have to follow when arriving into the Virgin Islands.
She mentioned that the Department of Health, with assistance from the National Guard, is performing screenings at the airport.
If a traveler records a temperature of higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, there are procedures in place to begin the quarantine process. The outside heat of arriving may spike a temperature, so people that have a temperature of higher than 100.4 will get their temperature taken again about 15 minutes later. If a fever is confirmed, the passenger is tested for COVID-19 and can’t return to the general public until a negative COVID-test is confirmed.
Greeters distribute personal protective equipment – a mask, sanitizer and wipes – to arriving travelers. They also reinforce the no-mask, no-service policy, and answer questions about other Virgin Islands policies in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (See policy flyer below)
Hamilton said since reopening, occupancies are between 20 and 40 percent for a lot of the properties in June and in July, and “some of them jump up to the mid-60s.” She said timeshares are doing a little better.
She also mentioned that hotels are complying with the guidelines from usviupdate.com, which are based on CDC guidelines for hotels. Some of the corporate properties have more stringent guidelines, she added, and ask visitors to sign a waiver.
“Those that are open are being very cautious,” Hamilton said, stressing the importance of training to increase sanitizing protocols and adjusting to wearing a mask for a full shift.
Henneman-Todman mentioned that the Economic Development Authority has been hosting Zoom webinars with the Department of Health with different sectors to promote the guidelines within a sector.
Boschulte said that the USVI is telling airlines and hotels to inform travelers of the policy before they leave so they can understand the expectations.
“Information flow and education is the best way to help keep our curve flat,” he said.
The commissioner thanked travel partners who, he said, “are making it easier for people to get us here in territory for overnight stays,” and spoke about airline companies that are starting to provide more flights to the islands. The uptick in flights shows that the demand for travel to the USVI is still there and said, “We really need the economic injection.”
Cruise ships, he said, have been a different story.
“Unfortunately for us and much of the world that likes to cruise, the cruise arrival to the V.I. and the region is still on hold. We don’t anticipate seeing any ships before October, and if they happen in October, we expect to see very little traffic and much less capacity in the ships.”
Henneman-Todman spoke about the high level of interest of the virtual carnival celebrations with Virgin Islands Emancipation Day and Independence Day, which are the usual time of year for St. John Carnival.
“We are all excited, I mean it’s not how we like to celebrate, but at least we showed progress,” Henneman-Todman said. “Where St. Thomas Carnival we were completely shut down, at least for St. John festival although it’s virtual our mandates isn’t as stringent.”
A viewer asked about interisland travel and once again Boschulte reiterated that no-mask, no service is the baseline for ferries and small planes.
The group also spoke about the importance of the public and private sector collaboration and said there is a daily call that discusses ways to safely move forward in a way that includes both groups.