Local health officials warned ominously for months that reopening the territory could trigger a spike in COVID-19 cases.
That scenario appears to be playing out, as a recent surge in infections — a jump of 35 cases in about two weeks — has Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. now imposing tighter restrictions on incoming travelers as well as contractors with the Limetree Bay facility on St. Croix, a hotbed for new infections.
“Effective immediately, there will be a temporary hold on all incoming [Limetree Bay] contractors coming into the territory,” Bryan said at a news conference Monday.
The announcement came on the heels of Limetree Bay reporting six new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the facility’s total confirmed cases to 21.
Bryan said tighter controls will be placed on individuals moving in and out of the Limetree Bay village, with the V.I. Police Department and refinery security enforcing these controls, and Health officials doing contact tracing.
On Monday, a Limetree Bay statement said those who are quarantined are restricted to a designated area within the village and are not allowed to leave quarantine until clearance is received from the Health Department. All other residents of the village are required to isolate in the village with the exception of going to work — at which point, face masks are mandatory.
“This recent spike in COVID-19 positive cases in the territory is alarming — but realistically, this is what we’ve been preparing for,” Bryan said. “This is our test, the true test to see if we can get through a surge.”
As of Monday, the territory has recorded 116 positive cases of COVID-19 — 65 on St. Croix, 47 on St. Thomas and four on St. John — and is currently tracking 27 active cases.
The rising numbers, while on a smaller scale, are in line with a major uptick of cases in several states, including Florida and Texas, both of which reported their biggest daily rise in new confirmed cases over the last few days.
Acknowledging this, Bryan announced Monday a new travel policy requiring any traveler whose place of residency is Florida, Texas or Arizona receive a negative COVID-19 test result — or a positive antibodies test result, which shows that someone has had the coronavirus in the past — 72 hours prior to departing for the territory.
Those who fail both tests will be subject to a 14-day quarantine.
“We got to remember that every little bit of security we do helps,” Bryan said. “At worse, it can’t hurt.”
The policy will go into effect on July 13 and last for two weeks, at which point another assessment of the policy will be made.
Bryan added that only three tourists have tested positive for the virus since June 1 and that the majority of travel-related positive cases were returning locals.
“One of the things that we have observed in going through this process is that the tourists come and stay mainly isolated,” he said. “But when our local people come home, they go see their auntie, their cousin, they mix with their friends, they patronize the local establishments, they have more of an intermixing with our population, which is an opportunity to spread.”
The governor urged residents to continue wearing their masks whenever possible, insisting the “No Mask, No Service” policy in the territory is working.
Bryan said the current situation has not warranted a need to return to earlier restrictions and shutdowns.
“I don’t think we’re at that point,” he said. “I think we have a very concentrated place that we’re seeing the virus spreading and we’re extending the protocols to that significant place.”