TORTOLA — The British Virgin Islands government announced Wednesday the easing of a 24-hour curfew that would allow for the gradual reopening of its economy via a two-pronged phase during a six-week period.
Premier Andrew Fahie said the reopening would begin Saturday with the resumption of cargo delivery, allowing essential businesses to open their doors from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. beginning Sunday and allowing residents to travel through one airport for at least three months. Travelers will be required to seek approval seven days prior to traveling.
The announcements came during a press briefing broadcast via radio and streamed live on Facebook on Wednesday with Fahie, Gov. Augustus Jaspert and Calvin Malone, minister of Health and Social Development, in attendance.
Fahie said a relaxed curfew, from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., will begin Sunday and end June 1 in what will be the first phase of the two-phase reopening. On that day, senior citizens — identified as individuals 70 and older — as well as essential workers will have access to reopened businesses while all other residents are to remain at home. The latter will be able to venture out within their districts — and in limited phases in Road Town — beginning Monday.
Wednesday’s announcement followed prior extreme actions taken by the BVI government, including the closure of the territory’s airports and seaports from March 23 through April 6, and subsequent 24-hour curfews that Fahie implemented to help slow the spread of COVID-19 after the first positive cases were confirmed.
Officials said the two-phase reopening will be managed by a district system with Phase 1 running through June 1, with Phase 2 measures to be announced at a later date.
Jaspert said the reopening won’t be “business as usual.”
On Saturday, the delivery of cargo will resume on Tortola and Virgin Gorda, followed by limited entry into the Road Town business district beginning Monday and through Thursday.
Fahie, who on March 27 ordered a seven-day lockdown and then expanded the curfew for 14 days through April 20, addressed residents Wednesday, saying that he felt the frustration of those affected by the closure of the ports as well as the curfews.
“It was not easy, nor was it an easy decision to tell the cruise ships and tourists not to come at this time. It was not an easy decision to know there are Virgin Islanders living abroad in high-risk COVID-19 countries. They are our family members who want to come home but could not for now because our borders had to be closed,” he said.
To date, the BVI has had three confirmed cases linked to residents’ who traveled to the island from high-risk areas. The results of two of the three individuals who were retested came back negative, officials have said.
The curfews meant that schools were shuttered and only essential businesses such as grocery stores, remained open, but only long enough to allow residents to stock up for the long haul.
“It was not an easy decision to close schools and tell children they cannot attend. It was not an easy decision to tell you, when you meet your brother, sister or a friend, to greet them from a distance. I was not an easy decision to ask you to close your businesses and it certainly was not an easy decision to ask you to shop for 14 days and remain indoors for 24 hours each day,” Fahie said.
The premier noted that stories of individuals with COVID-19 has been daunting, and that seeing many people on ventilators gasping for breath and the reality of people abroad succumbing to COVID-19, left the territory “no choice but to pray, plan and persevere.”
The BVI government, he said, invested $12 million to ensure essential measures were in place to help contain the virus.
“We have in place an aggressive contact tracing and containment measures along with the proactive social distancing,” Fahie said. “We have no new cases or spikes in transmission and no evidence of community spreading to date.”
That information helped in the territory’s decision to reopen the economy, he said.
“Cabinet ministers deliberated, voted and agreed that there is no need for any further extension of the current 14-day, 24-hour imposition of a curfew order,” Fahie said.
He added that the Health Emergency Operations Center provided Cabinet members with “a comprehensive COVID-19 phased internal and restricted opening borders plan.”
The Cabinet, however, endorsed only Phase 1 of the plan, through June 1.
“We thought it best to approve the plan in phases so that each phase builds on the strength of the other and to allow for adjustments and amendments to be made along the way, seeing that this pandemic remains fluid,” Fahie said. “Simply put, we are not out of the woods yet.”
The gradual reopening of the territory is as follows:
Cargo delivery: Approved businesses will be allowed to clear supplies from Port Purcell and St. Thomas Bay, Virgin Gorda.
Essential businesses: Twenty-one essential businesses will operate between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. beginning Sunday and include supermarkets, mini marts, bakeries, health care facilities, pharmacies, drug stores, restaurants (takeout only), banks, farming/fishing, gas stations, hardware stores, ferries (inter-island only), buses/taxis (social distancing protocols to be enforced), laundromats, insurance companies, small construction operations with a limit of 20 persons per project, manufacturers/suppliers of PPE and hand sanitizers, office supplies, telecommunications, automotive services, home delivery and faith-based organizations (20 person limit).
While the approved business will be allowed to operate between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., they must allow employees to report and leave work within the hours of the imposed curfew.
Monday to Thursday
All residents: From 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., residents will be able to move around in their respective districts, which the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force will help enforce. They will have limited access to the Road Town business district for four days on a schedule as follows:
• Monday — Districts 4, 5 and 6
• Tuesday — Districts 1, 2 and 3 (includes Jost Van Dyke)
• Wednesday — Districts 7 and 8
• Thursday, April 23 — District 9. Residents of the district, which includes Anegada, will be allowed to travel to the Road Town business district during the four-day period from Monday to Thursday.
• Beginning Friday, April 24, through June 1, all residents will be able to access essential businesses between 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Officials also announced the following:
• All beaches and sea access will remain closed.
• Schools will remain closed, but teachers may access schools for supplies. A plan will be announced by the Education minister.
• Home-delivery services of essential food, which began Wednesday, will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
• Home-delivery of LPG cooking gas will be between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m.
• Belongers and residents will be allowed to enter the territory only through Lettsome Airport during the next three months. Approval must be granted seven days in advance of travel among other measures.
Fahie said officials approved the structured reopening to prevent everyone from rushing to stores to stock up on supplies.
“Please understand the territory will no longer be under a full lockdown,” he said. “We are putting these measures in place so that we do not retard the progress we have made so far, in containing COVID-19 in the British Virgin Islands. As a territory, we have been doing extremely well. We just want to make sure there’s a structured approach.”
Jaspert said that the measures taken seem to have worked as there are no new cases or evidence of community spread.
“That has only been the case because of your collective effort to comply with the restrictions in place so please continue to stay at home,” he said. “Once we start the phased opening from next week, it is vital that we do not think this is a return to normal ... we mustn’t come out of our houses thinking all the difficulty is behind us.”
He reiterated that BVI borders will remain closed to passengers until June 2.
“This is important because the progress and the ability we have to do a safe phased reopening internally, relies on not importing or bringing in any risk of the virus into the territory — do not think this is business as usual,” he said. “We still need to keep focused on beating this virus, keeping out people safe and staying ahead of the risks.”