Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. on Wednesday said he is instituting a “rent freeze” during the remainder of the cornonavirus emergency. prohibiting landlords from increasing rent, even in cases where the lease or rental agreement has expired.
During his Wednesday news conference updating the territory on the coronavirus, Bryan also said the U.S. Virgin Islands has received $75 million from the federal CARES Act, which will allow disbursement of stimulus checks and provide a subsidy for rate payers of the Water and Power Authority, according to a statement issued Thursday morning by Government House.
Bryan also said during the news conference that he toured the Virgin Islands National Guard’s Regional Training Institute in Estate Bethlehem on St. Croix, which is being adapted to serve as a quarantine facility for COVID-19 patients.
“I want to caution the public that this pandemic is going to be with us for a while longer,” the governor said. “As we reopen the economy, and sooner or later, we’re going to have to reopen the economy, it’s not unreasonable that we will see surges that come and go as infections increase and decrease over time.
“The main concern is not to avoid the virus, because we know that’s impossible, you cannot avoid this virus, but to be prepared to isolate any outbreaks and treat the affected patients with the best in medical care,” he said.
The rent freeze will remain in effect for the duration of the state of emergency. The governor said landlords of tenanted apartments may not increase the rent, even if the lease has expired.
“I’m getting a lot of questions from people who are talking about their rent and getting eviction notices. I want to be clear, while we have an eviction freeze, the eviction process continues,” Bryan said. “If you’re not paying your rent, your landlord can move for eviction and do everything necessary for eviction. They just can’t put you out of the apartment until the end of the state of emergency. So, we’re urging you today to do your best to pay your rent or any rent payment programs that you may be a part of.”
Bryan said the state of emergency extends until May 12, but he is preparing legislation to send to the Senate to get authorization to extend the state of emergency to June 12.
By the numbers
As of Thursday morning, 701 individuals have been tested for COVID-19 in the territory, with 618 of those testing negative, 54 positive and 51 still pending.
Of those who tested positive, 48 have recovered, while three people have died, and the Virgin islands Health Department currently is tracking three active cases of the virus.
Preparation is ‘a new way of life’
Bryan talked about the territory’s readiness for the drawn-out and continued path the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to take in the coming months, the Government House statement said.
“There is the second wave that is discussed on a national level, and our strategy is to prepare for the pandemic management as a new way of life,” the governor said. “We are preparing for what comes next.”
The governor said Schneider Regional Medical Center on St. Thomas has completed the first phase of its COVID wing and now can accommodate an additional 20 acute care beds specifically designated for patients who are infected with the virus.
Additional ventilators are on order, Bryan said, and the territory continues to build its stockpile of personal protective equipment, including overalls, face-shields, 60,000 regular masks and 50,000 N-95 masks.
“This is one of the major pieces of us reopening our economy, to have more ventilators available in case of a surge, Bryan said. “We are definitely better prepared now than we were 60 days ago.”
Bryan also said that a portion of the $75 million federal assistance will go toward providing the $1,200 stimulus checks for residents and the WAPA subsidies of $250 for individuals an $500 for businesses, which is known as the YES Program for Your Energy Stimulus.
The federal funds also will go toward the Territory’s COVID Safe Transit Subsidy for the St. Thomas-St. John passenger ferries and also will be used to provide safe transport for the disabled and senior citizens.
“One of the things we did early on was try to get the ferries to limit the amount of people traveling to and from St. John,” the governor said. “That, of course, had an economic result, so we’re setting aside some funds now to give to both passenger ferry companies that take residents to and from St. Thomas and St. John.”
No hotel reservations yet
During his news conference the governor reiterated that there will be no hotel reservations allowed until at least May 15, although depending on what happens as the track of the COVID-19 virus continues, that moratorium on reservations could last into June.
“We’re having the discussions now about getting the testings together so we can test every single person who touches our shores,” Bryan said. “People are ready to come back to the Virgin Islands. I’m getting calls from hotels and people want to come on vacation, they have weddings planned. We want to keep all our people safe. That’s the primary thing. So, we’re trying to get the testing to the point where we can allow them back.”
Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin also provided an update on the status of the territory’s public schools, including that the Board of Education has suspended its retention and promotion policies for the 2019-2020 school year to ensure that student achievement isn’t negatively impacted.
Bryan’s next COVID-19 news conference is tentatively scheduled for Friday. Beginning next week, the governor will scale back his press conferences to two per week, according to Government House