Business leaders share their experiences and responses in the event of a pandemic at a community forum

Frederiksted Pier, empty of cruise ships due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo source by Don Buchanan)

On Wednesday, a business forum hosted by Governor Albert Bryan Jr. and the VI Economic Development Authority brought together representatives from companies to discuss how they are protecting themselves and their customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bryan kicked off the forum with a list of his ideas for improving the lives and economy of the Virgin Islands, as part of his administration’s Vision 2040 program. He also spoke about improving the health and health care of residents.

The governor anticipates that there will be six new health facilities, including two skilled nursing facilities, built in the near future. Two hospitals and two clinics are expected to be rebuilt in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes. Better lifestyles will be encouraged by more recreational facilities, bike paths and walking communities, he said. Other plans that Bryan mentioned included 169 VI parks and recreation projects, including the reconstruction of the Paul E. Joseph Stadium and the Vincent Mason Pool in Frederiksted. Bryan said two racetracks and an automobile racetrack will also be built.

“The Virgin Islands have followed for so long; it is time for us to lead, ”he said.

After Bryan’s speech, several representatives from the tourism industry spoke about the safety precautions they are now taking to keep people safe and what they plan to do when they reopen their businesses.

Jayne Halcomb and Elisa Shen, of the Royal Caribbean Group, spoke about the 496,000 passengers on Royal Caribbean and Celebrity ships brought to St. Thomas in 2019. About 93% of them disembarked in St. Thomas and spent an average of four hours and a half. on the island. When cruises return, the industry will be looking for more outdoor activities and outdoor shopping to keep passengers safe.

Royal Caribbean will adapt and evolve after the pandemic, Shen said. In line with CDC guidelines, they will provide more personal protective equipment, install advanced sanitation protocols, and screen staff daily.

“We can compete with any hospital and will partner with our destinations,” said Shen, after complaining that the CDC had “been a bit invasive in the cruise industry.”

The cruise line will also reduce group sizes and site capacities and eliminate buffets. The company will find more tour operators to lure people off the boat, and passengers will be encouraged to participate in more shore excursions.

Lisa Hamilton of the USVI Hotel and Tourism Association was the first participant to speak about the hospitality industry. More than 1,200 hotel rooms have been closed since the hurricanes of 2017 and the only one open on Sainte-Croix – Carambola Resort – offers limited services. The Divi Carina Bay Resort and the Elysian Hotel are set to reopen this month, with Frenchman’s Reef aiming to reopen in the second quarter of 2022, she said.

Hamilton recommended that the territory create new sites for small groups after the pandemic. Rooms should be more affordable, and hotels should accept alternative payment methods such as Venmo and PayPal. Stores should consider moving merchandise outside with flexible hours for working people. Other ideas include small food fairs and evening street fairs. Vendors will need to continue to use disinfectant and masks, test staff, and update signage.

Representing the St. Thomas / St. John Chamber of Commerce, Adriane Dudley spoke about some of the challenges faced by businesses in the Virgin Islands, including the high cost of utilities, supplies and shipping. During the pandemic, companies do not have the same access to capital and the employment pool is shrinking. Business owners are unable to plan for the future and are suffering from pandemic fatigue, she added.

Ryan Nelthropp, president of the Holy Cross Chamber of Commerce, said businesses can cope with the new normal by getting more creative, exporting products and using more digital marketing and virtual meetings. He added that the government can help the most by dredging all ports to accommodate mega-ships.

According to a Small Business Development Center survey of 38 restaurants in St. Thomas and St. John, 89% are underwater, 8% are stagnant and only 3% say they are okay. In other words, there is a 64% decrease in income in St. Thomas and a 58% reduction in income in St. John. As a result, restaurateurs have seen their workforce decrease by 43%, according to Ted Gutierrez, the state director of the SBDA.

Restaurant owners interviewed said the government could help by collecting workers’ compensation payments quarterly instead of a year, forgiving fines, opening bar counters and helping organize food tours, Gutierrez said. .

Restaurants in Sainte-Croix will be investigated at a later date, he said.

The maritime industry also participated in the forum. She was represented by Damien Cartwright of the VI Port Authority; Oriel Blake, executive director of the VI Professional Charter Association; and Kevin Bailey of the VI Game Fishing Club.

The industry is “booming,” said Blake, with 700 cabins of VI charter yachts occupied for the season. Due to the nature of sailing – with small groups of people on the outside – social distancing is relatively easy. USVI ports are open and there is new interest in St. Croix, she added.

There are 11,000 maritime jobs in the territory and the industry is set to expand, according to Blake. Maritime infrastructure needs to improve and more services are needed, she said.

Bailey said that although the territory offers tournaments and is the blue marlin capital of the world, more land attractions are needed. The fishermen want to go to the beach bars to eat and drink. More moorings and dive sites are also needed.

Cartwright then introduced a young entrepreneur, Tywreh Nelson, to talk about his business, Upper Class OG, a lifestyle brand company.

“Age is proportional to innovation,” Cartwright said.

Nelson and his cousin started the business in 2017. Since then, they have learned to solve problems, trust others and respond to customer requests. They use social media to connect and strengthen their relationships.

“We have to teach and impart knowledge to the residents behind us. The roots create fruit, ”he said.

Several other officials spoke, including Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion, who reiterated COVID protocols for virgin islanders. She said the pandemic had “increased and decreased” and that there are currently cases of community transmission.

“The goal here is not to shut down or sanction businesses, but to encourage them to find creative ways to balance everything and keep people safe,” she said.

Other representatives spoke about the work their organizations are doing for the community, including Gutierrez of the Small Business Development Center and Wayne Biggs, chief executive of the Economic Development Authority, who spoke about loans available through the EDA bank.

Denise Johannes, Director of the Corporations and Trademarks Division in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, explained how to start the process of opening a business, and Richard Evangelista, the Commissioner of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, gave instructions on how to complete the process online.

A presentation on the USVI Economic Reopening and Restructuring Working Group was scheduled for the forum. Yihan Wang, head of economic development at the Research and Technology Park at the University of the Virgin Islands, spoke about some aspects of the study, but the full report will not be complete until the end of January.

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