Following the lead of federal leaders and public health organizations, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. announced Monday that the territory’s stay at home order has been extended a month, until April 30.
Sunday, the V.I. Health Department announced that another seven COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in the territory, bringing the total count to 30. At his regular press briefing Monday, Bryan said the numbers were exponentially higher on the mainland, with experts projecting that 100,000-200,000 citizens would die from the virus, while millions more would be infected.
“This is a serious situation,” he said. “We have been fortunate, but we have been vigilant, thus far. But, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security that we will be exempt from this virus. We will not be exempt from this count, or from the perils that are to come.”
Tightening restrictions again, Bryan ordered the closure of all restaurants, bars and food trucks on local beaches, which he said have been fueling gatherings of more than 10 residents in violation of recommended social distancing guidelines.
He also took a firm stance on gas station and convenience store owners that have not put a stop to outside loitering, saying, “If we catch you, we will shut you down.”
“You will be subject to closure until April 30 or face a permanent revocation of your business license,” the governor added. “We are wasting valuable resources sending officers out there to deal with this problem.”
To those in the community who he said might continue not to take the restrictions seriously, Bryan said watching national news reports might spur a change in perspective.
Meanwhile, the governor said his administration has been monitoring Airbnb and other online booking sites, and will begin shutting those down soon, too, since bookings still continue despite an order in place for hotels and other guest houses to stop accommodating guests flying into the territory for 30 days.
“We need each of you to do your part by staying at home whenever possible and by assessing your individual situation and adjusting to this new way of life,” he said. “It’s going to be a while until we get back to normal, but life must go on. As a government, we are making these decisions the minute, by the hour, by the second.”
Labor and Unemployment
Labor Commissioner Gary Molloy also said at Monday’s news conference than an increase in unemployment benefit applications has sent droves of residents to the department’s offices in both districts. To keep the risk of exposure low for everyone, Molloy said that starting Wednesday, only online applications for unemployment will be accepted.
More than 1,000 applications have been received since March 27, he added, with the majority coming from the St. Thomas-St. John district. While reminding the public that unemployment is awarded only to those who have actually been laid off, he also explained that the ongoing pandemic has forced many businesses locally to downsize, reduce hours or close until further notice.
Malloy said that starting Wednesday:
– There will be drop-off boxes outside of Labor’s offices in both districts for any applications, including workers compensation, along with handbooks for filing claims. Questions can be phoned to 340-773-1994 on St. Croix or 340-776-3700 on St. Thomas-St. John;
– Unemployment claims must be filed online at www.vidol.gov. Applications can be filed from a computer or smart phone, and Molloy said that anyone who has already submitted an application does not have to refile;
– A 24-hour hotline will be launched to help residents with the process;
– All residents filing an unemployment claim must also register online at www.vidolviews.org to prevent any delays in processing. No claim will be finalized unless that registration is complete.
Molloy said that once a claim is filed and registration online is complete, a Labor Department employee will be making contact within 72 hours to verify that they have received the application and to provide next steps.
Over the weekend, Molloy said he and Bryan signed an agreement with the U.S. Labor Department in an effort to extend benefits provided under the US Cares Act to local residents, including pandemic employment assistance and pandemic unemployment compensation, among others. Molloy said he is waiting on funds and guidance from the federal government before implementing those benefits, and will keep the public updated.
Malloy also announced additions to the Family Medical Leave Act, including paid sick leave for full and part-time employees who have been directly impacted by the coronavirus. Again, Molloy said he is waiting on federal guidance before anything is implemented.
Asked about the government’s ability to pay economic stimulus benefits to V.I. residents, the governor shared the structure of the territory’s mirror tax system and explained that any payouts would have to be done locally first, then reimbursed by the federal government, amounting to approximately $40 million up front.
While approval has been given by the V.I. Legislature to a $60 million line of credit, Bryan said the preferred course of action is to get the U.S. Treasury to approve and give the territory the money first, then have the payouts begin. Either way, Bryan said he has already authorized the V.I. Bureau of Internal Revenue to begin gathering residents’ data based on 2018 filings, and encouraged residents to file “quickly” if they have not already in order to get their stimulus checks.
“We have already been in talks with lending institutions – that started about two weeks ago – on how money would be distributed and what forms of repayment would be applicable, but we have until May before it becomes a critical situation,” the governor said.
Meanwhile, he did assure government employees that pay days will not be held up.