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USVI Government is Prohibited from Closing Airports Without FAA Approval

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St. Thomas 𑁋 In a statement Wednesday, Governor Wanda Vázquez said that her administration made a request to Federal Aviation Administrator Stephen Dickson to close Puerto Rican airspace for at least fourteen days. 

Vázquez said in the press conference that this was a crucial step the Puerto Rican government needed to take to further limit the spread of the coronavirus on the isolated island. 

The Federal Aviation Administration said that it is reviewing the government’s request. However, it’s important to note that “FAA policy does not permit the closure or restriction of airports that receive federal funds. Any request to restrict or close an airport must be approved by the FAA.”

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This federal mandate applies to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, including U.S. territories in the Pacific, and all fifty states. Approximately 50 miles away, the U.S. Virgin Islands has six confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of Friday evening

Governor Albert Bryan Jr. has postponed all Carnival 2020 events on St. Thomas indefinitely and has begun restricting public gatherings — advising residents to limit gatherings to only ten individuals in a single location. To date, Bryan’s efforts have not been as aggressive as measures taken by mayors and governors of hard-hit states like California and New York. 

Both states have enacted mandatory stay-at-home orders in an effort to stop the spread of the virus in their cities. “This is not a permanent state — this is a moment in time,” Governor Gavin Newsom of California said. “We will meet this moment together, and we will look back at these kinds of decisions as pivotal decisions.”

Earlier Thursday, news outlets reported Newsom said in a letter to President Donald J. Trump that fifty-six percent of the state’s population could become infected with the new coronavirus within the span of two months. The letter also requested that the USNS Mercy hospital ship be stationed at the port of Los Angeles through September. 

Bryan has held a number of press conferences since the World Health Organization declared that Covid-19 had become a global pandemic eleven days ago. News outlets also learned that U.S. intelligence reports warned the Trump administration and members of Congress that the coronavirus could potentially grow into a global pandemic, one that could potentially overwhelm the nation’s healthcare system. 

As Trump reportedly received intelligence reports about the seriousness of the coronavirus threat, he continued to downplay its severity in public. Today, virtually every government agency and semi-autonomous agency in the U.S. Virgin Islands has announced changes to hours, with some asking employees to work remotely to limit further community infections. 

In the letter, Vázquez also asked the FAA to close all airports where arriving passengers were not being screened by local authorities, limit the air-strips where charter planes can land, and allow the island to limit all air traffic except for vital services and military operations. “Each of these requests is independent of each other,” Vázquez said. “We’re asking the FAA to allow one of them, or all of them, simultaneously.”

Bryan also closed public schools in the territory and teachers have begun holding classes remotely to avoid falling behind for the 2019-2020 school year. His administration would also be required to petition the FAA, similar to the request made by Puerto Rico in order to close airports that receive federal funds. With a weak healthcare system and an aging population, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are seen as particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus.