While it may not be the International Emmy Founders Award that his New York counterpart received last month, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. deserves recognition for his administration’s COVID-19 response.
Save for the wildly unpopular mandate of plasticware use and the early shutdown of beaches on weekends, he skillfully navigated the handling of the virus with various edicts seeking to ensure residents’ safety.
And, now that we all can breathe a sigh of relief given the initial fast-tracking of two vaccines, it’s worth noting how we got here without the large-scale death toll imagined, and hospitalizations few and far between.
Since the world began grappling with the novel coronavirus in March, the Virgin Islands has had 23 virus-related deaths. To date, two people are hospitalized at Luis Hospital with one on a ventilator. Currently, there are no COVID-related patients at Schneider Hospital. The relatively low number of hospitalizations has been, and continues to be, a saving grace for the territory given our limited number of ICU beds.
When Bryan rolled out his initial “Stay-at-home” executive order nine months ago, many quickly adhered to social distancing guidelines, perhaps in fear of the unknown. He would later move to the “Safer-at-home” phase, after paving the way for all other non-essential businesses to reopen and restaurants allowing limited dine-in service under a “No Mask, No Service” policy.
Those safety precautions came with steep costs. Jobs were lost and some businesses that shut down temporarily during the initial lockdown closed their doors for good. Students lost valuable in-classroom instruction with a mandated switch to online learning. While this reduced students’ risk, it also served to highlight the digital divide as many went weeks without computers and internet access. The V.I. government would eventually distribute laptops, funded through the initial federal stimulus program dubbed the CARES Act.
The Bryan administration also helped residents by announcing eviction moratoriums, and worked to ensure stimulus checks reached those who qualified.
The governor’s briefings — streamed live online — helped companies keep abreast of incentives such as the Paycheck Protection Program that helped save jobs and businesses in the wake of the pandemic. It’s worth noting that some local businesses provided incentives to frontline workers, while others partnered with Government House to provide protective equipment and funding to assist medical staff.
The governor, in short, struck a balance by straddling the middle ground. While he didn’t impose the severe restrictions of his counterparts in New York and California, he also didn’t go the way of the governors of Texas and Florida, who reopened their economy citing the lockdown as a deathknell to businesses. In the British Virgin Islands, there has been 86 confirmed cases and one death even as that territory faced a more severe lockdown. Only time will tell if taking the middle ground was the right approach.
What’s apparent is that Bryan seems to be trying to avoid another lockdown that could further cripple our economy. Last week, with COVID cases spiking in the territory and on the U.S. mainland, he announced nightclubs would be shut down as of Dec. 17 and that all bars would close from Christmas Day through Jan. 8, to stymie the spread of the virus. He encouraged residents to scale back holiday gatherings and discouraged all non-essential travel. Those disembarking at local airports will need to show proof of negative COVID tests, he said, or get one on the spot.
While the administration has announced testing at local airports before, this time it comes with the real threat of a mandatory 14-day quarantine. The governor said those refusing to be tested will be levied a fine that “will be significantly more than the cost of getting a COVID-19 test.”
Bryan lamented that after nine months of hearing about COVID, many understandably may be fatigued, but that now is not the time to be complacent. He’s right. Even with two vaccines available, we cannot let our guard down. We are still in a pandemic.
V.I. Health Department officials have said that many of the active cases in the Virgin Islands have been asymptomatic, meaning there are few symptoms that readily show someone is infected with the virus. So, help stop the spread by observing social distancing guidelines, wash hands often, wear face coverings in public and scale back holiday gatherings for your safety and that of loved ones.