Officials from the BVI Health Service Authority speak during a business forum last Thursday hosted by the BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association. (Photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

Hand sanitiser may be scarce on Virgin Islands store shelves, but public health personnel have a message for business owners seeking to protect staff and customers from contacting the deadly COVID-19 virus: There’s no substitute for soap and water.

Last Thursday, during a business town hall forum on the pandemic hosted by the BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association, Chief Epidemiologist Harmony Brewley-Massiah said that ideally businesses, especially high-traffic ones, should set up sanitation stations that customers can use as soon as they come into the building and while they’re leaving.

A business owner stood up and asked, “What if we can’t find hand sanitiser?”

Sanitiser is “a convenience,” replied Chief Medical Officer Dr. Irad Potter.

“Hand sanitisers are not a substitute for washing your hands. Yes, we know there is a shortage for everything for cleaning; everything we’ve mentioned is probably not available at this moment, but soap and water still works.”

Henrietta Alexander, acting deputy chief environmental health officer, said a responsible business should have such supplies on hand anyway.

“What were you doing before COVID-19? You weren’t buying these things before?” she asked. “We have the flu season every year, and it spreads the same way.”

Health guidelines

The forum took place before government’s Tuesday decision to close borders to non-residents, but Dr. Potter addressed the possibility anyway.

“If you close your borders it would restrict travel,” he warned. “It would impact the economy.”

Though the virus hasn’t been confirmed in the territory, officials urged businesses to have a plan in place to respond if it is, especially if one of their employees falls ill. Preparations start with keeping personal protective equipment and masks on hand to distribute.

“If you have employees that travel to high-risk countries and start to show signs and symptoms, … you need to quarantine them in a room” while contacting the BVIHSA, Ms. Brewley-Massiah explained.

“We come to them and we will remove them from the premises. …After the person has been removed from your facility, we will ensure your facility is thoroughly clean and disinfected so we don’t allow [the virus] to spread to employees and customers.”

Training cleaners

The officials went on to detail further guidelines they are providing to all businesses as they scramble to take precautions against the virus, which has sickened tens of thousands worldwide.

“We have been conducting a series of sessions with cleaners throughout the territory,” Ms. Brewley-Massiah said.

She suggested that businesses contact the BVIHSA to set up training sessions on how to clean and disinfect properly.

“For those who have high traffic, [such as] banks who handle money, we suggest that your tellers use gloves,” she said.

However, she explained, staff need to know information including where to put their gloves afterward, a training that the HSA can also facilitate.

Ms. Alexander pointed out that some common cleaning practices that businesses use aren’t effective. Mixing cleaning chemicals such as Clorox and Fabuloso, for example, dilutes them, she said.

“Fabuloso is not a disinfectant or a sanitiser: … It is a deodoriser,” she said. Cleaners, she added, need to do more than mop and sweep the floors: They should disinfect frequently touched surfaces like doorknobs and elevator buttons, using a different clean cloth for each.

Social distancing

Many business owners are struggling to decide whether to close completely, switch to remote work, or use other means of social distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus.

Ms. Brewley-Massiah said more businesses should consider allowing as many of their staff to telecommute as possible, and that they should control who they allow to travel, due to quarantine advisories for those entering the VI from certain high-risk countries.

No matter what, sick people should not come to work, she added.

“We are not giving out stars for perfect attendance anymore,” she said. “We do want to encourage … flexible working schedules and plans for persons who can work from home if that is possible.”

She said that businesses especially should try to calculate the minimal amount of personnel with whom they can effectively operate in the event there is an outbreak “and you do have staff that is out sick or quarantined,” she said.

Promoting good health among staff, including eating well, exercising and getting adequate water and sleep, should be something that business owners do consistently, Dr. Potter said.

“It has to be your responsibility to ensure protection [of] your business,” he added.