With the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, and the quarantine and lockdown that have come with it, the Virgin Islands economy has taken some serious blows, and none harder than the one suffered by tourism. While we cannot be sure when travel and tourism will begin to resume, we can be sure that we need to start planning how we will do it, and what steps we can take now that will make it easier and better than before.
In the first instance, we need to look towards the criteria that we would require for the Virgin Islands to feel that we are ready to accept guests. This would mean that persons here are comfortable enough with the situation so that we are safe enough for our own needs. Then we can look to accepting visitors.
To have an accurate idea of where we stand, we need to have a yardstick with which we can measure our progress as we move forward into the Covid economy. This means social distancing, good handwashing, frequent cleaning of public spaces, wearing masks, and a host of other initiatives will have to be tracked so that we can be confident of their effectiveness.
Aside from collecting data from the medical field about reported cases, test results and their outcomes, we truly need a more proactive approach to gauge the extent of Covid-19 in the community. Widespread testing is the only way.
In this small territory, so reliant on tourism for a large part of its economy, community-wide testing would go a long way to informing the government and the public about where we really stand. It would also put the medical community in the driver’s seat in respect to pandemic management, where the doctors would finally know as much about the virus as the virus knows about us. With this, an aggressive containment strategy would be possible to carry out with pinpoint accuracy. With testing, there is no doubt that the most that can possibly be done for the people of the VI is being done.
‘Test and fly, BVI’
With this strategy in place, we would be in a position to greet visitors who meet the requirements that we would lay out. This starts with testing our visitors. There are tests with very prompt results, some within minutes. One of these tests could be identified by the VI government and approved for use by persons intending to visit the VI. No test, no visit.
Since most of the incoming flights are from San Juan, Miami and Atlanta, a small medical team at the gate in those airports could administer the tests to the passengers before boarding. Negative results can board the plane, and positive results are referred to their own doctor or medical centre for advice or care in their hometown. For guests who are not coming from those major airports, there could be an arrival waiting room at the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport in Beef Island, where potential visitors would be tested. People who test positive would have to fly back out on the next flight at their expense.
‘Test and float, on the boat’
Guests arriving by ferry can be tested at one of two kiosks in the ferry terminals in St. Thomas. They simply have to arrive early enough for the result before they catch their boat. If they fail the test, they stay on St. Thomas.
Yachts and other vessels would need to bring their entire crew and passengers ashore at an appointed time and place. This area would be kept separate from all other people, and would in effect be a quarantine medical facility. In order for them to request clearance, each passenger and crew must be tested, and if one fails, the whole boat with all persons is denied entry to the VI. If they all pass, clearance is allowed.
The cost of the testing programme could be pro-rated as part of the new entry protocol for the VI. The medical teams in Atlanta, San Juan and Miami could be medical professionals from those areas, hired specifically to perform those tests for those flights, and need not be full-time hires. The same could be true for the people in St. Thomas.
In a post-Covid world, liability concerns are a new field of concern. In the first instance, travellers would likely be asked to sign a hold-harmless agreement for the duration of their visit, and by doing so accept responsibility for the test, the outcome, the travel and their visit. Should any part fail, it is the visitors’ understanding that this was possible before they arrived, and they would have to accept the outcome.
The travellers would receive on arrival a medical slip similar to the entry slip that they currently receive. It could be called a medical visa. They keep it with them in their passport and surrender it on departure. That way the VI can know their entry, length of stay and exit, and where they stayed while they were here.
The protocols for visitors are going to change. Because they are in an environment that is tested and clear, and they have been tested and clear, there is less immediate concern than if no testing had been done. Still, it would be wise for guests to keep a record of taxis used, restaurants visited, and the activities they enjoyed while they were here, and enter these into a journal that could be in the form of an app on their phone. This way, if there were any complications, contact tracing would be simplified. Also, hotels and villas will have more stringent requirements for hygiene, service and recordkeeping, in the interest of being sure that Covid has no foothold in tourism here in the VI.
In closing, tourism is an important part of the VI economy, and a plan is needed. But more important than that are the health and welfare of residents, and it is critical that the government choose a strategy that shows that the best path is taken.
Testing is the first step of that path, and testing can lead the way to recovery for all segments of the economy. When that first step is taken, the VI can be assured that it is leading the way forward in a post-Covid world in the safest manner possible.