Government House Communications Director Richard Motta on Monday put off questions on the fate of Senate Majority Leader Marvin Blyden, who was charged in connection with willfully exposing the public to COVID-19 by V.I. Attorney General Denise George.
It was a 180-degree turn from just over a week ago. During a Sept. 20 briefing, Motta claimed that a V.I. law about violating a public health mandate was too vague for Blyden to face criminal charges. Blyden, who has since admitted wrongdoing, was seen at an event — potentially risking the health of scores of others when he should have been home quarantining after twice testing positive for COVID-19.
“We don’t have anything on the books legally that speaks to an individual who is violating a public health order, let’s say, for example, an order by the Department of Health to quarantine for 10 days,” Motta said with Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion nearby.
According to V.I. Code, Title 14, Chapter 43, Subsection 886, “whoever willfully exposes himself or another afflicted with any contagious or infectious disease in any public place or thoroughfare, except in his necessary removal in a manner the least dangerous to the public health, shall be fined not more than $200 or imprisoned not more than 1 year, or both.”
Even so, Motta, the chief spokesperson for Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., appeared unconvinced.
“We have what was put forward in the executive order, and you just read something from the Virgin Islands Code, that speaks to an infectious disease. It doesn’t clearly define what that is, and what can be prosecuted by a court of law, in terms of, it doesn’t provide any further guidelines other than what you read, so the law is vague and it needs to be clearly defined,” Motta responded, after the law was cited by media personnel.
The attorney general apparently disagreed.
We took note that George, in her statement, published the very section of the law that days earlier Motta said was vague while also adding that everyone “is entitled to due process.”
“No one is above the law, willfully exposing people from within our community to this potentially deadly communicable disease is not something that should be brushed aside,” George, the territory’s top law enforcement officer and a member of Bryan’s Cabinet, wrote. “We all have a duty to protect our fellow Virgin Islanders and elected leaders are not exempt by status or position from following the law.”
She charged Blyden with one count of “Exposure in a Public Place,” a violation of the V.I. criminal code, for “willfully exposing the public to a contagious disease” and noting he faces a fine or imprisonment or both.
Blyden, who is scheduled to appear in court Friday, and who prior to the charges being announced, apologized for what he termed was his “terrible lapse of judgement,” admitting he met with “potential investors who had already flown down for the meeting.”
“Regardless of what I believed or even knew, I should have followed the guidelines set by the Department of Health and the CDC. Plain and simple, regardless of my intentions, my actions were wrong,” Blyden, said in his own statement released Sept. 20.
Hours earlier, the leadership of the 34th Legislature announced a five-member ethics committee to probe the allegations.
“This matter is extremely serious in nature, and we have to ensure the public that we take the coronavirus pandemic seriously,” Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory said following a meeting with Vice President Novelle Francis and Secretary Genevieve Whitaker. “We cannot hold senators to different standards, if anything, senators must be held to a higher standard, as we represent the people of the territory.”
Back at the Sept. 20 press briefing when news of Blyden’s lapse in judgement was merely an allegation, Encarnacion also was asked to comment.
“Just as you are not exempt from catching COVID, you are not exempt from following the guidance that Department of Health and Gov. Bryan have put in place,” she said. “I don’t care who you are in the territory, public health is all of our business. I think we are all responsible for the health and safety of the person that’s next to you.”
We couldn’t agree more.