TORTOLA — Months after the British Virgin Islands reopened its border to allow Belongers to return, many are still unable to get back home.
It’s the same for work permit holders, who starting this month have been allowed to return home.
Julieth Smith, a Belonger, has been stranded on St. Thomas; Geoff Day, a work-permit holder who has resided on the island for 12 years, is stuck on St. Martin. The two are among many BVI residents, work permit holders and others forced to live on other Caribbean islands or stateside since late March when Premier Andrew Fahie initially ordered a complete lockdown to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
In the first phase to partially reopen BVI borders, Belongers were given from June 1 through Sept. 30 to return home with the government bearing the cost to quarantine them.
However, neither Smith nor Day could take advantage.
Under strict measures with the limited border reopening — a full opening is slated for Dec. 1 — travelers were mandated to come through the Terrence B. Lettsome Airport.
“Right now, only Beef Island is open and it’s expensive,” Smith, who normally would take the ferry services from St. Thomas to Roadtown, said of the airport.
The border closing caught her by surprise. Smith said she was on St. Thomas doing last-minute shopping for her mother, with plans to return home on March 23, when BVI borders were announced closed at midnight on March 22. Smith told The Daily News she searched for plane tickets and learned it would cost more than $900 from St. Thomas via Puerto Rico to the BVI.
She ended up getting an apartment on St. Thomas. Smith said she was eventually approved to return to the BVI on Aug 22, but then coronavirus cases began to spike.
In a statement announcing a second phase of its border reopening on Aug. 17, Health Minister Carvin Malone said individuals would now be required to contribute to security and other measures to quarantine in their own homes.
“I just gave up. I heard I’d have to pay $2,500 if I didn’t get home by the end of September and I’m not paying that kind of money to get quarantined in my house,” Smith told The Daily News last week. “But that’s not my biggest problem. I have a tenant who’s being charged $2,400 for a studio apartment by Water and Sewerage Department since the first lockdown and I can’t get this sorted. I’m frustrated, very frustrated.”
Minister of Transportation and Works Kye Rhymer referred questions about Smith’s case to Pearline Scatliffe-Leonard, director of the Water and Sewerage Department, when reached. Scatliffe-Leonard acknowledged that Smith had some claims and that “we looked at them and we have resolved all.”
Day’s case remains unresolved although as of Oct. 1, all work permit and work permit exemption holders, as well as other categories of residents, are being permitted to enter the territory. They, too, will be required to offset quarantine costs.
Day, a carpenter and musician who has lived in the BVI for 12 years, has spent the last seven months on St. Martin, emailing BVI officials about his plight.
The emails have included support from a new employer as well as letters of recommendations to no avail, he said.
“They’re telling me that they are still not processing new permits but I can come back temporarily in December if I wish to sort out my affairs and leave the territory for good — not the news I was looking for,” Day said.
Life in St. Martin is tough, as Day is paying bills both there and in the BVI.
“I want to come home, but in their eyes, BVI is not (my home),” he said. “I’m struggling here with just surviving, doing work under the radar and still paying the rent on my BVI home.”
In the seven months he has been locked out, Day said he has spent $4,900 in rent, which includes water and electricity.
“All my possessions are in the BVI, including my tools for work, and I also have pets,” he said
Last month, BVI officials announced a third reopening phase slated for Dec. 1. At that time it will begin to welcome international tourists and others.
As for Day, Dec. 1 can’t come soon enough. Still, he has to keep his fingers crossed. Flights from St. Martin to the BVI are in short supply, he said.