Someday, we will open the borders. People will come to the Virgin Islands from places near and far. And when they do, we need to be sure we are ready for their visit — and ready to keep our people safe from the possibility of contracting Covid-19. There is no question that the VI has done an excellent job of protecting its population and has been wise to allow other islands to open first so that we can observe and learn from their successes and failures. Still, we need a way forward that brings us closer to an active economy in a post-Covid world.
A possible plan might look something like the proposal outlined below, with a slow phased opening that maximises safety while providing as much service to the community as possible.
In the first instance, testing should be administered by the VI, and it should be in place for everyone entering the territory. This would eliminate the possibility that some people would be able to present forged or fraudulent test reports from other sources. There are a number of different testing methods available, most are reasonably accurate, and some have a short notification time — under ten minutes in some cases. Some of these kits should be purchased and analysed by local officials, and a choice should be made as to which ones to use.
Once a test method and protocol are in place, priorities should be made as to who will be in the first phase of travellers allowed into the VI. There are surely many Virgin Islanders, belongers and business owners who have yet to return or visit, and they should be in the first round. Medical doctors and agents and technicians for various industries should also be in the first round. They should all be tested before entering, and this would be a great opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of the testing method and protocols and make changes as necessary. Because of the community nature of these first-phase visitors, if they test positive they could opt to remain outside the VI or enter and go directly into quarantine for 14 days.
The second phase could be people already approved for work permits, returning work-permit holders who were caught out, and people entering for long-stay visits — for example, people who own a second home here and are entering for six months, or long-stay tourists, or yacht travellers entering for three months or more. People currently in the VI would also be able to travel out and return, but would need to be tested on the way back in. This second phase should be fairly long, so as to give the Covid task force the time needed to really examine the data up to that point and have meaningful discussions about the effectiveness of the programme and the risks so far.
The third phase would be the limited opening of the border for tourists, with a two-week minimum stay and a deposit or bond to cover the cost of repatriation should that become necessary. During this phase, anyone testing positive would not be allowed to enter the VI.
The last phase would essentially open borders to anyone with a negative test result. This could include cruise ship and day visitors, but the visitors would be required to cover the cost of the testing. For each of these last groups, that would discourage the number of visitors that the VI had before, and this decision should be left to the discretion of the government and the health authorities at that time to see what is appropriate. Again, any person testing positive in this stage would not be allowed to enter the VI.
The costs of the testing prior to entering should be on the account of the person visiting —essentially a test fee that would remain a part of the travel requirement for the foreseeable future. There could also be a health care bond that would help to mitigate costs of repatriation or care should the need arise. It might even be possible to frame this as a type of insurance, with a small premium collected from all visitors to cover the risk and expense that presents itself with an active case in the territory.
All testing should take place before boarding the plane or ferry. That means a testing team or contractor is present at the two St. Thomas ferry terminals and the airports in San Juan and St. Maarten. All entering yachts would be required to quarantine on board in two or three designated anchorages while their tests are being processed. These anchorages would be guarded.
There would be some people arriving from a high-risk area who would be deemed an especial risk, and they should be required to quarantine for seven days and test again. The facilities for this process are already in place.
The timeline for these phases should be entirely up to the advice of the health authorities and the government. The need for safety is paramount, but the need for an economy also needs to be recognised.
With these steps and protocols in place, it is possible for the VI to re-enter the tourism economy and the world. Stringent controls will provide the greatest possible safety and return many to the pride of earning their own income again.