ST. THOMAS — V.I. lawmakers on Monday soundly rejected Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s proposal to put a tighter grip on mass gatherings, insisting the measure was overly restrictive and an unnecessary duplication of functions already in place.
The bill in question — Bill 33-0356 — sought to create the “Mass Gatherings Act,” a law that would establish rules and regulations and ultimately safety parameters for any gathering of 50 people or more in a public space.
The law would require event organizers to submit a permit application up to 45 days in advance of an event and have it reviewed by a 10-person “Virgin Islands Board of Mass Gatherings.”
For Bryan, who submitted the bill in response to a July 2019 shooting on St. Croix that left six people injured at a large Floatopia party, the goal was to enhance coordination among law enforcement agencies and organizers to ensure internal security and public order was better enforced.
Moreover, with the advent of COVID-19, the bill adopted a public health dimension, with Health officials hoping to include health and safety parameters into the application process.
“This bill is proposed to increase public safety at commercial, for profit, mass gathering events that takes place on public property,” said V.I. Police Commissioner Trevor Velinor, who testified before a Committee of the Whole hearing on Monday.
“It is not intended to prevent freedom of assembly. In fact, police presence at sanctioned mass gatherings ensures the rights of citizens to peacefully assemble.”
Lawmakers, however, were not convinced, slamming the bill as poorly crafted, poorly represented and a blatant overreach by the governor.
“The bill is unclear, overly restrictive and it requires numerous layers of government action to plan an event with more than 50 people,” said. Sen. Allison DeGazon. “Thirty pages of regulations that makes mass gatherings extremely difficult to accomplish makes me question whose interests does this really serve?”
Sen. Kenneth Gittens, a former law enforcement officer, also voiced his dismay that neither Velinor nor V.I. Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion were involved in the crafting of the legislation.
“I am totally baffled — how could such a far-reaching piece of proposed legislation come before this body and the stakeholders don’t get a chance to sit together to iron out the kinks before it comes here for action,” he asked. “Are we to just sit here now and rubber stamp this legislation?”
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory also insisted that the V.I. Police Department and other law enforcement agencies already have the authority to regulate mass gatherings.
“Nothing prevents [these agencies] from coming together and promulgating the necessary rules and regulations around how this territory wants mass gatherings to look like,” she said. “The executive branch needs to do their job. We’re in a State of Emergency and to say that the Legislature needs to move this legislation in order for the V.I. Police Department to do its job, that’s disingenuous.”
Senators further argued that the bill infringed upon the people’s First Amendment right to peacefully assemble.
“This bill that we have before us today curtails the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment and we cannot create legislation that make access to those rights hard,” said Sen. Janelle Sarauw. “You already have mechanisms in place. You already have state of emergency powers. You already have the authority to enforce. And in this territory, we suffer from an enforcement deficiency.”
While Velinor acknowledged that the bill had “holes,” it is unclear when Bryan will resubmit a revised version.
The committee took no action on the bill.