With a bold, collaborative approach to governance, Gov. Bryan has succeeded in taming COVID-19 while countering poverty, rebuilding the islands’ infrastructure in the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, and laying the groundwork for the next phase of economic growth.
A new generation of Democratic leaders has been cropping up all over the United States, including on the US Virgin Islands (USVI), one of the country’s five inhabited territories. In-office for 20 months, Governor Albert Bryan, Jr.—the only African American governor in the United States—has provided exemplary leadership to a population that is vulnerable to the impact of hurricanes, as well as to unemployment, poverty, and the inevitable health issues that go hand in hand with all of these challenges.
Under the circumstances, Gov. Bryan might well find himself overwhelmed as a new, relatively young governor saddled with ongoing disaster recovery, a global pandemic, and the concomitant collapse of the tourism industry on the islands. But the governor has risen to the occasion at every step. Working with local and federal partners, he has been coordinating territory-wide strategies to contain the coronavirus while protecting the economy and USVI residents and visitors’ health. It is an approach to governance that rests on people’s power, combined with capable, compassionate leadership.
Governing in the Time of COVID
The USVI Department of Health confirmed the first COVID-19 case on March 13, and Gov. Bryan declared a local state of emergency that same day. Working in close partnership with the Health Commissioner, the governor has been able to contain the virus by mandating all recommended public health measures, starting with adequate testing.
Perhaps surprisingly, unlike many other states and localities, the islands have been well-positioned to conduct COVID testing. Shortly after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the decision was made to build the first Territorial Public Health Laboratory. Little did the USVI’s decision-makers know how vital the lab would be three years later.
With the arrival of COVID-19 in early 2020, the territory was able to conduct its own PCR testing for the virus. According to Health Commissioner Justa E. Encarnacion, the USVI has now “surpassed the federal benchmark of testing 2% of the population.” Combined with extensive contact tracing, the government’s testing program has effectively reduced the numbers of cases from 15% this summer to below 5% in mid-September.
Gov. Bryan and the Health Commissioner also made sure to equip the islands’ health facilities with the necessary beds, staff, supplies, and equipment to treat the anticipated influx of patients laid low by COVID. And at the community level, government healthcare workers have distributed call-in numbers, masks, and hand sanitizers to all USVI inhabitants and visitors, further curtailing transmission. They intend to keep their outreach efforts going for the duration of the pandemic.
Travel and Tourism
On the US Virgin Islands—also known as “America’s Paradise”—the economic impact of COVID-19 has been severe. The tourism industry has all but collapsed, with travelers understandably choosing to stay close to home as a preventive health measure.
The US Virgin Islands is comprised of St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas, Water Island, and several uninhabited islands. With its rich culture and history, ethnic and culinary diversity, breathtaking beaches, picturesque views, and off-the-beaten-track experiences, the USVI offers every natural amenity for travelers seeking a Caribbean vacation with all the comforts and conveniences of a US destination.
But for the time being, the pandemic has hobbled travel and tourism to the islands, and no one can predict when the industry will bounce back.
“Tourism is the largest industry in the US Virgin Islands, contributing an estimated 60% to the territory’s GDP,” says Joseph Boschulte, Commissioner of Tourism. “COVID-19 has severely impacted travel and tourism around the world. Navigating the ‘new normal’ is an integral part of the USVI’s strategy to rebound and breathe life back into this critical sector.”
Cultural St. Croix
The largest of the islands, St. Croix’s colorful past, is reflected in architecture, national parks, historic landmarks, botanical attractions, music, and the multitude of traditions that make the locals’ daily lives also known as Crucians. St. Croix’s culinary landscape is shaped by the diverse people and cultures that call it home. Travelers can savor the island’s distinctive foods, extraordinary history, and eclectic culture with walking food and bus tours or spending time with locals learning about the diverse culinary traditions.
Natural St. John
Two-thirds of St. John, the smallest of the three islands, is a protected US national park with 9,500 acres of hilly green land and an underwater reserve. With its beautiful beaches, hiking trails, and scenic landscape, hikers, snorkelers, and nature lovers will find much to see and do on pristine St. John. Among the “must-see” sights within the Virgin Islands National Park are the ruins of the Annaberg Plantation, as well as the Reef Bay Trail – a hiking trail dotted with sugar mill ruins and petroglyphs dating back to the Taino Indians. One of the island’s most popular attractions, Trunk Bay is world-renowned for its crystal-clear water and white coral sand. Trunk Bay also features an underwater snorkeling trail, which is well-suited for those who want to learn more about the region’s colorful marine life. The trail features underwater plaques with detailed descriptions.
Cosmopolitan St. Thomas
The liveliest of the US Virgin Islands is Cosmopolitan St. Thomas, with its duty-free shopping and sophisticated dining options. Charlotte Amalie, the capital city of the US Virgin Islands, is a bustling harbor town full of character, restaurants, warehouse shops and historic monuments. And, a mere half-mile off the coast of St. Thomas, Water Island allows visitors to trade the bustle of St. Thomas, for quiet relaxation.
The Virgin Islands’ First Digital Governor
In this unprecedented moment, Gov. Bryan has dedicated himself to governing in the here-and-now, but also to planning for a post-COVID future.
“I have always been a firm believer that the government must be flexible and adaptive to the ever-changing needs of the community,” he says. “During this pandemic, governments have had to strike a very delicate and often difficult balance between protecting public health, preserving our economies, and avoiding unnecessary infringement on individual liberties. Those governments that are innovative, flexible, and adaptive have weathered this crisis better than others that are not.”
Gov. Bryan, a nationally described digital leader, has made important strides in bringing the benefits of technology to the islands. He has leveraged those benefits to see the population through the pandemic and keep the economy afloat. High impact technology initiatives by Gov. Bryan’s administration include:
- Instituted a government transparency website (http://transparency.vi.gov/), which lists and makes public all financial transactions and payments to vendors.
- Introduced the capability for online Identification Card Processing and Vehicle Registration for the first time at the Virgin Islands Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
- Initiated an online contracting module allowing for complete digital processing of government contracts.
- Improved the online systems for applying for and renewing business licenses in the territory, dramatically improving the processing and approval time.
Earlier this year, Gov. Bryan spearheaded a partnership with Google aimed at bringing locally relevant, high-quality COVID information to Virgin Islanders on a daily basis.
“In a nutshell, we have harnessed the best that technology has to offer on behalf of the health and safety of our residents,” says Gov. Bryan. The new partnership with Google has been protecting Virgin Islanders from fake news, price gouging, fraud, and spammers who prey on Internet users, especially the elderly.
The governor also negotiated an agreement with tech giants to bring low-cost hardware and software to the USVI public schools. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding is helping to level the technological playing field, bringing all of the islands’ students up to speed and preparing them to learn, work, and thrive in the 21st century.
Gov. Bryan sees the tech industry as key to the islands’ social and economic progress. Businesses need high-speed connectivity to carry out daily operations and interact with the global marketplace. Determined to create a business-friendly environment in which local and global companies can thrive, he has put technology squarely at the top of his economic agenda.
Learning from Setbacks and Sharing Best Practices
Gov. Bryan campaigned on a platform of change, and during his 20 months in office, he has delivered on his campaign promises. Beyond keeping the islands afloat during the pandemic, he has fought to reduce poverty and promote family well-being through vigorous rebuilding and repair efforts—still critically important in the aftermath of two back-to-back hurricanes in 2017—as well as a HUD-funded homeownership program and free college tuition at the University of the Virgin Islands.
He and his Lieutenant Governor, Tregenza A. Roach, Esq., were instrumental in the passage of a law which provides free college tuition to students at UVI , which is not only the only Historically Black College and University outside of the 48 contiguous states, but also the only one in the nation that offers free tuition.
Re-invigorating tourism continues to be a top priority, along with attracting global businesses to the islands.
The governor subscribes to an approach to social and economic policy called the resilience model, which is especially relevant for the islands of the world, vulnerable as they are to the effects of climate change. Climate-related disasters are expected to grow more intense, more frequent, and more devastating as the century unfolds.
“We cannot eliminate our residents’ exposure to the dangers posed by extreme weather events,” Gov. Bryan says, “but we can invest in what the World Bank calls resilient infrastructure. That means investing in long-term risk reduction initiatives before disasters strike, and in community, preparedness to minimize harm and economic loss.”
He further believes that the USVI is in a position to offer guidance and leadership to the world’s islands and other developing countries based on the resilience model, which he sees as both bold and protective. “It’s a sensible path to a prosperous future.”
A Strong Relationship with the Federal Government
For many years, the US Virgin Islands has had a strong presence in Washington, D.C., including a delegate in the US House of Representatives. Gov. Bryan and Delegate Stacey E. Plaskett work collaboratively and tirelessly with the White House and Congress for the Virgin Islands’ and other territories’ fair share of funding. Additionally, the governor’s Washington representative, Teri Helenese, serves as his liaison to the executive and legislative branches of government, as well as the local business community, and works on economic stimulus and development activities.
With the presidential election less than a month, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have an enthusiastic supporter in Gov. Bryan, a leader who shares their overall worldview, humanistic values, and commitment to democratic norms and institutions.
As it happens, Joe Biden’s adopted home is St. Croix, and he is a cherished Virgin Islander.
Harris is of Jamaican ancestry, making her candidacy especially meaningful for the Caribbean region. A Biden/Harris win would serve to mobilize the energies of the diverse peoples of the Caribbean, and their leaders, to great purpose.
In the primaries, the Democratic Party of the Virgin Islands cast all of its votes for the Biden/Harris ticket.
Proud to be part of the coming Democratic wave, Gov. Bryan is a noteworthy example of the Party’s new generation of dynamic, innovative leaders.