Passengers arrive at Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport last month. (All photos: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

It had been over a year since I’d last travelled to the United States.

I normally make the trip twice a year, and I’d never missed Christmas in my home state of Minnesota in my entire life.

Covid-19 changed all that, of course, and with the pandemic still raging in December, it seemed foolish to try to travel just to spend a freezing, socially distanced Christmas week in Minnesota.

Arrivals wait to have their temperature checked at the airport. (All photos: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

My parents, also working remotely for the first time, planned to escape to a condo in Phoenix in the spring, and they offered to pay my airfare to come visit them in better, warmer circumstances.

This sounded like an infinitely better plan, and so on March 1, I was on my way to sunny Arizona, where I planned to work remotely myself for a few weeks. Everybody was trying out the “digital nomad” lifestyle, it seemed, so why not me?

Booking

But the hiccups started even before I left the territory.

At the time I booked my tickets, seaports were still scheduled to open March 1, and I held off on booking a return ticket in hopes I would be able to take a ferry from St. Thomas to Road Town. That proved to be my first disappointment, as government pushed back the date to April 15 shortly before I left.

That meant I had to go ahead and book a flight through Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport on Beef Island via San Juan, which can be significantly more expensive than ferrying over from St. Thomas.

But this didn’t prove to be the disaster I feared. Though the initial one-way fares I was quoted were over $500, I managed to keep them to around $300 by booking each leg separately.

After that, my trip out of the territory went fairly smoothly, and the visit to Phoenix was great.

As I prepared to journey back to the Virgin Islands, however, I didn’t realise that I was flying right into a proverbial storm.

Since I had to quarantine and I live with a housemate, I booked a four-night stay over Easter weekend at Scrub Island Resort, Spa and Marina, deciding I would experience VI travel in the Covid-19 era through a tourist’s eyes. My first stop, assoon as I had my return flight and hotel stay booked, was the BVI Gateway site, which all visitors and returning residents must use in order to get approval to enter the territory, paying a $175 fee that covers testing and GPS tracking (and, up until last month, transportation). Although I’d had to take a travel PCR test to enter St. Thomas via ferry on my way to the mainland US, this was my first introduction to the actual protocols that the VI requires for reentry.

According to BVI Gateway, I would need a negative PCR test taken in the five days before my arrival in the VI, to be uploaded to the site before I left.

In the US, this can often mean paying a steep fee to a lab to ensure you get your results on time, especially if you’re travelling after a weekend, as I was.

However, the test results can’t be uploaded to BVI Gateway until after you submit the rest of the form and receive an email inviting you to submit them.

An arrival receives a tracking device outside the airport.

The portal clearly states that all test results must be uploaded 24 hours ahead of arrival. But 30 hours before arrival, I had received no prompt to upload the results, without which I wouldn’t be approved to enter.

On the verge of panic, I knew what to do: email Lynette Harrigan, marketing manager at the BVI Tourist Board and certified pandemic rock star. She responded to my email within a few hours, and soon the invitation to log back into the portal and upload my test results was in my inbox. I submitted the results, and, approval in hand, I was on my way.

Day Zero

Luckily, transiting through San Juan, I did not have to follow any additional protocols other than showing a boarding pass that indicated I wouldn’t be staying, which eliminated a significant stressor.

Checking in for my 45-minute Seabourne Airlines flight to Beef Island, I was asked to show my approval certificate again.

While boarding, I noticed only a few of the 20 or so passengers seemed to be tourists.

Most were returning residents, some of whom had been travelling for work. I’m a nervous flyer in general, but seeing Tortola from the air coming in from San Juan was spectacular, since the plane loops around West End and offers aerial vistas of the length of Tortola as it follows the Sir Francis Drake Channel east to Beef Island. It would be a wondrous sneak peak of the territory for any first-hand tourist, and isn’t something I would have experienced entering by ferry.

Airport arrival

The arrival at the airport was not quite so wondrous, but it went surprisingly quickly. All the passengers from my flight were herded into an auxiliary airport building, where we had our temperatures taken by looking at a video screen using technology I didn’t understand, then told to sit in socially distanced (yet padded and quite comfortable) chairs.

We verified our contact information, then received a nasal swab that was significantly less painful than the first time I’d had it performed.

We were given no additional information about the protocols that we had been required to read earlier via the BVI Gateway app. These instructions were quite detailed, although they seemed out of date. The instructions, for instance, mentioned a requirement to download a tracking app, which, to my knowledge, no traveller has ever received, though leaders promised it when the borders first reopened.

Of course, the instructions also said health officials would phone me regularly to check in, and that didn’t happen either.

On arrival, however, immigration and customs went exactly as they normally do.

Then outside the airport, I was given a tracking device, which was a small black box that I was instructed to plug in, charge and keep turned on.

The ferry to Scrub Island.

I was perplexed, given that there was no bracelet or other means of actually attaching the box to me. I’d read previous accounts of bracelets malfunctioning or even burning people when exposed to water, so I wondered if they had been phased out. No one explained as much, however. Scrub Island
Scrub Island sent a complimentary “Gold Seal” taxi to its boat from the Trellis Bay dock, on which I was the only passenger. Shown to my hotel suite by a masked staffer (and sans the standard Scrub welcome cocktail) I plugged in the tracker box, and it buzzed and the lights went crazy. When I pressed the “on” button, it quieted down for a while, but in about half an hour it started beeping incessantly and alternating red and green blinks until I turned the power off again.

Eventually, I decided to plug it in and leave the power off because I couldn’t stand the beeping. I figured since at least one green light was glowing, the authorities wouldn’t be banging down my door anytime soon.

Then the waiting began. I was tantalised by the blue waters and poolside cocktails, but protocols required I stay in my room until I received my results from the airport test, which I was told I would receive in 24 hours.

I didn’t mind too much (as I imagine most tourists wouldn’t) because that meant I could order a shrimp curry dinner from room service, and I was exhausted from my trip anyway. I also had a fully stocked fridge that would take care of most breakfasts and lunches during my stay. However, by the afternoon of the next day, when the results weren’t yet in, my time had begun to drag. The large family in the suite across from mine was waiting for the same thing, and when they finally got their test results, a cheer went up.

Days one to three

The Day Zero test results finally came in at noon on Day Two after a little less than 48 hours. The date on the email inbox said they were released on March 31 even though they arrived on April 1, which seemed a little sneaky to me.

By that time, I had seen reports on various Facebook forums that the BVI Health Services Authority was struggling to get test results done on time.

People on yachts were running out of food and water, and visitors were understandably angry. Obviously, I was in no rush, but if I had an expensive, once-in-a-lifetime vacation I was missing, I knew I’d likely feel differently.

After I finally got my results, I had to finish some remote work, but then it was straight to the pool. I felt a little guilty: With the whole resort at my disposal, I no longer felt like I was truly in quarantine.

The GPS tracking device I received.

It gave me a full day to hike up and down the hills of Scrub Island, where I’d visited before but never fully explored, including the well-tended History Garden featuring ruins from colonial times. I also went kayaking in the channel between Scrub and Great Camanoe.

Even though it was Easter weekend, it was hard not to notice that the resort had reduced staff and resources.

The second swim-up bar, the Cardamom & Co. Restaurant, and the One Shoe Beach Bar on North Bay beach — which normally hosts pig roasts and other large gatherings — were all closed. As I later found out, the resort didn’t have the staff or the guests to make opening any of these facilities financially worthwhile. I did, however, have the entire expanse of the north beach to myself. As a solo traveller, I might have preferred a slightly livelier atmosphere, but in the Covid era, vacations and staycations are quite different.

The manager

When I contacted management with questions, I was put in touch with General Manager Michael Schoonewagen. At that point, I mentioned that I planned to write a first-person story for the Beacon about my experiences, so he said he’d like to meet with me.

I soon found myself having a socially distanced Easter coffee and macaroons from the on-island market as Mr. Schoonewagen explained some of the circumstances the resort has faced over the past year, which included having to lay off much of its expatriate staff, leaving top positions, including a head chef and food-and-beverage manager, unfilled.

Open since November, the resort had been keeping afloat mostly by catering to local clientele coming for staycations, he said.

With 24 out of 61 rooms filled, Easter Week had been the busiest one yet. However, various delays and other issues had caused continued problems. My 48-hour wait for Day Zero results was one example.

“Not only does this lock up people (and families) for 48 hours in their room, but equally for a five-day stay people are starting now to miss their planes back home as the results are not there before boarding, and you cannot board a flight to the US without a negative test [a maximum of] three days before,” he said.

Day Four test

By Day Three, I had started to wonder what I would have to do to conduct my Day Four test, for which I would have to go straight to Dr. Orlando Smith Hospital in a taxi, and straight back. Health officials had said not to contact them — and to wait instead for an email — but by the night of Day Three, I hadn’t heard anything.

In fact, it was the Scrub Island front desk itself that told me to be ready to get the Scrub boat at 8 a.m. on Day Four.

By the time the email from government actually arrived, I was already on the boat headed over to the hospital. Good thing I hadn’t waited.

Scrub Island guests enjoy the pool. After the Day Zero test result, they are free to enjoy the entire island.

Unlike on my trip to Scrub, I shared the taxi with two other groups, including one home quarantine we picked up along the way. The recent announcement that guests would now be required to pay for their ground transportation was a bit concerning, but the driver of the taxi was friendly and efficient, and he charged only $24 per person return, which I thought was more than reasonable.

As a resident, I wasn’t too concerned about sharing the taxi, although I understood why a tourist would be. I’d heard reports of people being contact traced and forced to cut short their holidays after sharing transport with someone who later tested positive, or charter yachts being forced to return to the dock.

The whole process from start to finish, including transportation and the test itself, didn’t take much more than an hour, and then I had all of Day Four to enjoy when I returned to Scrub.

Day Five

However, another problem was starting to become apparent.

During Easter Week, the BVIHSA announced that due to testing for a new software system, PCR test results would now take a minimum of 36 hours and a maximum of 48 hours, instead of the previously advertised 24-36 hours.

That could mean I would be getting my results back no earlier than midnight on Day Five — after I was scheduled to check out!

I couldn’t be the only person dealing with that issue, and the front desk soon called to inform me of the situation. If I’d had travel plans, or had been waiting for an exit test, as some fellow Scrub guests were, I could see how this situation could be disastrous, and I didn’t envy the employees having to make those calls.

Sunset on Scrub Island on Day Four.

Not only would such issues be damaging for the resort itself: They would harm “Brand BVI.” Tourism makes up such a large percentage of the economy that the territory simply cannot afford to allow tourists to leave disgruntled. They may never return.

My circumstances only required me to book another night at the resort, which wasn’t too bad. And, to my surprise, I didn’t need it. The results arrived in the morning of Day Five, right on schedule, and I heard from other guests that they’d received theirs on the 24-hour timeline. But I stayed another night anyway and enjoyed eggs benedict and a blue “bayside mimosa” at the pool the next morning before hopping on the Scrub boat back to Beef Island, where a friend picked me up. I dropped off my GPS tracker at the East End Police Station on the way home.

Appreciation

Quarantine gave me a new appreciation for the extreme challenges with which the private sector is working.

It was clear to me that many partners, including Ms. Harrigan and the many taxi drivers and health services personnel I dealt with, are working very hard.

In many respects, however, the protocols and associated delays are creating difficulties.

Mr. Schoonewagen, for instance, described the Easter debacle at Scrub as “a complete mess” and a “holiday from hell” for many tourists.

“They spend their time locked up for 48 hours and then the rest of their time stressing about changing flights, which is difficult,” he said. “For those who came to relax, they go back (if they can) more stressed than before they came. All say they should have gone to the USVI instead of coming to BVI.”


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