ST. THOMAS – The Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation and Aging chaired by Sen. Myron Jackson convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Wednesday to receive testimony on the status of COVID-19 protocols for the soft reopening of the historic towns of Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted, Frederiksted and Cruz Bay to visitors. Furthermore, lawmakers were updated on the revitalization projects and the stimulus payments for seniors who are collecting benefits under the CARES Act.
Presently, the state of emergency declared by Governor Albert Bryan, Jr., that began on March 13, 2020, remains effective until July 11, 2020, territorywide. Per the continuation of the phased re-opening, leisure travel is slated to resume on June 1, 2020. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The Virgin Islands is a destination Downtown COVID-19, in which the territory is scheduled to re-open next week,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Sen. Jackson. Ã¢â‚¬Å“However, there are places in the United States in which the government-mandated safety protocols for COVID-19 are breached. There is a lapse in social distancing and a lack of people wearing masks, yet these are the same people who will be visiting the Virgin Islands. The community needs to know that their health is entrusted in your care.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Thus far, the Department of Tourism, the Department of Health and the Office of the Governor collaborated and prepared the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Health and Safety Guidelines for the USVI Tourism Industry,Ã¢â‚¬Â a comprehensive master plan outlining protocols and procedures for the reopening of the Territory; according to Joseph Boschulte, Commissioner of the USVI Department of Tourism. The guidelines entail the proper handling of COVID-19 cases for hotels, lodging accommodations, restaurants, bars, and transportation services such as taxis, limos, and safaris. Additionally, Boschulte noted that informational flyers will be disseminated to tourists at welcome centers. However, lawmakers expressed their apprehension about the phased re-opening. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I recommend that the territory remains shut down to retain and manage the spread of the coronavirus in our community because we are opening the flood gates at the expense of the health of our people,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Sen. Oakland Benta. Similarly, Sen. Dwayne DeGraff shared his concern. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am extremely fearful of the reopening, especially for our seniors. Protocols must be in place,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said. Boschulte indicated that as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic, there is an estimated economic loss of $250 million or 90% because tourism revenues sharply declined territory-wide.
Admittedly, Justa Encarnacion, Commissioner of the Department of Health (DOH) noted that the first COVID-19 case was brought into the Territory by a tourist. However, due to the economic downturn, it is necessary to re-open the Virgin Islands. Furthermore, she indicated that DOH is prepared to combat the coronavirus by ensuring adequate medical supplies, personnel, and equipment. Hospitals are equipped with rapid testing equipment, increased bed capacity, and staff.
Separately, the Commissioner of Public Works Nelson Petty, Jr. shared an update on revitalization efforts. The Main Street Enhancement Project is slated to be completed by August 2020. It is 85% completed with over $11 million expended out of the contract totaling $14,625,004. Both the Christiansted Town Project and the Frederiksted Town Project is slated for road repairs that will commence in a few months.
Lastly, Joel Lee, Director of the V.I Bureau of Internal Revenue stated that thus far 24,700 units of stimulus checks were processed and paid to eligible residents totaling $39,826,412.17. In a written document submitted to the Legislature of the Virgin Islands, Bill Sweeney Senior Vice President Government Affairs indicated that Social Security beneficiaries in U.S. Territories, like all other Americans, should be able to receive their relief payments automatically and without having to file additional paperwork. ###