St. Thomas 𑁋 Last week, top officials in the British Virgin Islands essentially shut down its borders to slow the spread of the coronavirus, also known as Covid-19. The U.S. Virgin Islands, on the other hand, kept its borders open and put out an advisory on Saturday hoping to deter travelers from entering the territory.
No one is allowed to enter or leave the British Virgin Islands as of Sunday, March 22, 2020, Premier Andrew A. Fahie announced on local radio.
“If you are coming to the Virgin Islands, you will not have anywhere to stay for the next 30 days,” Governor Albert Bryan Jr. said in a press conference. “No hotel, no timeshare or no Airbnb will be allowed to accept any new guests.” Governors around the country have begun taking aggressive measures to safeguard citizens after the federal government fumbled its response to the outbreak and confirmed cases of Covid-19 continue to skyrocket from state to state.
In a statement Wednesday, Puerto Rican Governor Wanda Vázquez said that her administration made a request to Federal Aviation Administrator Stephen Dickson to close the island’s airspace for at least fourteen days. The Federal Aviation Administration said that it was reviewing the government’s request in the days that followed.
So why hasn’t the U.S. Virgin Islands closed its airports to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the territory? The answer is fairly simple, Governor Bryan does not have the authority to do so.
Federal laws make it difficult for states and territories to shut down borders without approval because “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.”
This federal mandate applies to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. territories in the Pacific, and all 50 states. While the FAA does have the jurisdiction to ground flights around the country, the actions have only been executed once in United States history — following the September 11th, attacks in 2001.
The first-ever grounding of all flights in the United States occurred in 2001 due to security concerns after the planes were hijacked and used as projectiles to take down the World Trade Center in New York, which included a deadly strike on the Pentagon. Transportation plays a significant role in America’s economy, if people and merchandise stop moving, the economy slows in response.
Approximately 50 miles away, the U.S. Virgin Islands has 17 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of Sunday evening. Residents have taken to social media, radio, and other mediums to demand that Bryan close the airports and restrict access to non-residents and foreigners.
However, the governor does not have the power to do that without breaking federal law. President Donald Trump and FAA administrator, Stephen Dickson have the power to ground domestic flights and close airports around the country.
Trump has not signaled that his administration has plans to close any of the airports in the 5 U.S. territories or the 50 states to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Many states have taken extreme measures to keep citizens from spreading the virus.
Bryan has ordered all hotels to halt booking news guests for the next 30 days as the global pandemic continues to spread, threatening to overwhelm the nation’s healthcare system.
Postponing vacations to the U.S. Virgin Islands will also lessen the impact of COVID-19 on the territory’s small community. If you are returning home to St. Croix, St. John, or St. Croix, you must quarantine for 14 days and self-monitor your symptoms. Older adults and those with underlying health issues are particularly vulnerable and should avoid crowded places and non-essential air travel to decrease their risk for virus transmission.
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.”
State of the Territory News could not confirm if a similar request to the FAA was made by the Bryan-Roach administration. 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. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends avoiding non-essential travel to any location as well as no cruise ship travel.
The following businesses are allowed to remain open after Wednesday, March 25, as long as they operate within the existing mass gathering restrictions and promote the recommended social distancing requirement of 6 feet or more between individuals:
• Places that sell food or produce
• Places with medical purposes
• Core life services, such as gas stations, banks, laundromats, and shipping companies
• Places that provide shelter
• Media outlets