While belongers and permanent residents were allowed to return to the Virgin Islands beginning in early June (above), this week is the first opportunity work-permit holders have to cross the border. (File photo: GIS)

While the Virgin Islands moves to the orange “Manage It” phase of its pandemic plan as a result of increased Covid-19 transmission in the community, Tuesday also marked the first opportunity for many expatriates stranded abroad to return to the territory once they have been approved by government.

Leaders, however, have not said how many people returned this week, if any.

Borders reopened to Virgin Islanders, belongers and permanent residents in early June, but officials didn’t say until last month when work-permit holders and other expatriates would be allowed back.

On Aug. 14, Premier Andrew Fahie said Cabinet had approved Phase Two of the Restricted Border Reopening Plan, which opened borders to expatriates as of Tuesday of this week. At the time of the premier’s announcement, the territory had recorded only nine confirmed cases, and only one was active.

As of early this week, that number had jumped to 47 total cases with 38 remaining active, and government had said for the first time that there was evidence of the virus spreading within the community.

But leaders did not walk back their plans to allow the entry of expatriates into the territory.

Instead, government yesterday invited companies and organisation to register for the re-entry of their expatriate employees through the online portal at www.bvitravel.vg. The registration process will take at least two weeks, according to a government press release, which did not provide any option for returning expatriates who wish to register themselves.

Officials didn’t provide any information this week about whether any expatriates had returned or registered. The most recent information on returnees came from Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone on Aug. 21. At the time, Mr. Malone said 994 people had registered to return to the territory, 783 of whom were verified by the Immigration Department. He did not specify if any of the registrants were expatriates.

He added that 597 people had completed mandatory quarantine by that time.

According to the mid-August decision, the current border rules allow for the entry of work-permit holders; work-permit exempt residents; students from H. Lavity Stoutt Community College and locally based medical schools; government employees and teachers with exceptional approval; dependents of belongers, permanent residents, work-permit holders and work-permit-exemption holders; and “persons desirous of conducting business in the territory,” according to a previous announcement.

Cabinet also empowered Mr. Malone to grant approval for people to cross the borders for emergency medical procedures. Natural Resources Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley was empowered to give approval for a few categories of people to return after Aug. 15, such as the children and spouses of belongers, residents and work-permit holders.

Additional categories of people are allowed to enter the VI for no longer than five days, including aviation crew; maritime crew; health care practitioners and medical staff; emergency maintenance, repair and other technical personnel; other essential specialised workers by approval of the ministers of health and labour; and diplomats.

Payment

All returning residents are required to seek advance approval from government and to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.

Throughout this month, government quarantine accommodations will be available for free to all returnees regardless of immigration status. Starting Oct. 1, however, expatriates entering the territory will have to pay $2,500 to quarantine in government facilities — a fee not charged to nationals, naturalised citizens or permanent residents.

Meanwhile, all returnees wishing to quarantine at home have to pay $3,500 per household — a fee that took effect Aug. 15.

Mr. Fahie said that the charges help cover the costs of 24- hour security and administrative expenses.

Those who left and returned for medical reasons are exempt from paying.

Jump in cases

The government has not telegraphed plans for when it might reopen the borders to tourists.

Other areas in the Caribbean have reopened, but some saw a spike in cases and had to implement new restrictions.

The United States VI, for instance, reopened on June 1 and now has 130 active cases. Because of the spike, it closed to tourists for at least a month on Aug. 19 and ordered residents to stay at home until leaders re-evaluate the situation.


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