Tensions rise among residents and travelers as US island territories work to stop COVID-19 spread

“What activities are open to do next week? Zip-lining? Jet ski? Anyone have recommendations on things still open?” a Facebook user asks.

“Stay home!” another user replies.

The Facebook group called “What’s Going on St. Thomas?” has been flooded with pointed, exasperated comments urging travelers to stay away. This is a marked change. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the exchanges between vacationers and island residents resonated with promises of excitement and fun. Now, tour operators from the mainland who administer the Facebook page quickly try to delete any expressions of anger.

In nearby Puerto Rico, the friction has spilled into real life. Media reports have detailed multiple episodes in which tourists, having escaped pandemic restrictions back home, became violent and destroyed store merchandise after being asked to wear a mask.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pitted economic interests against public health guidance all across the United States. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands feel this tension acutely, as both U.S. territories rely on tourism to generate revenue and provide jobs. Increasingly, locals have begun to wonder now if welcoming visitors to these islands is worth the risk.

Island travel and beyond: Where can Americans vacation internationally right now?

Tourism represents more than half of the Virgin Islands’ gross domestic product. In Puerto Rico, the industry accounts for 80,000 jobs and about 6.5% of the island’s total economy.

But islanders are not only vulnerable to COVID-19’s economic disruptions. Residents of both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are diagnosed with chronic health conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular illness at higher rates than in most U.S. states, which puts them at higher risk for the virus’ complications.

In short, the very industry that represents an economic lifeline for islanders threatens their ability to protect their health.

One step forward

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