While staying on St. Thomas, a face mask was the no. 1 travel essential.
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A beach in the USVI
Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Aranoff

Although COVID-19 protocols are easing in the United States and around the world, I learned firsthand that St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, hasn't let up on its rules and restrictions just yet.

Looking for a warm-weather vacation during what still seems like a never-ending New York winter, there was nowhere that called to me more than the Caribbean. With many flight options and the comfort of staying put on U.S. soil, all signs pointed to St. Thomas.

Although its COVID-19 cases are on the decline, St. Thomas — along with St. John, St. Croix, and Water Island — requires passengers to digitally upload proof of a negative PCR test to the islands' USVI Travel Portal. Tests must be taken within 3 days of arrival.

Once a PDF of a negative test and a flight or boat itinerary is uploaded to the portal, travelers will be sent a QR code via email. (Vaccinated passengers may also include a photo of their vaccine card but the USVI does not require visitors to be vaccinated.)

a SIGN READING "A mask is still required throughout the Virgin Islands"
Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Aranoff

Arriving in just under four hours from New York's JFK, officials took our temperature and scanned our QR codes as soon as we stepped off the plane.

Thankfully, when entering baggage claim, the island vibe I was craving set in as I was greeted with live performers, a DJ, and even rum tastings (a frequent occurrence at the airport). Despite the immediate feeling of Caribbean hospitality, I knew right away that St. Thomas was taking COVID-19 seriously with signs everywhere reminding travelers that masks are mandatory — regardless of vaccination status. 

My Airbnb was a four-minute walk to the beautiful Sapphire Beach, which is complete with a restaurant, beach bar, coffee shop, and snorkel stand. All of the local businesses promised the same sentiment: No mask, no service.

According to the USVI Department of Health, patrons must wear a mask inside restaurants, unless they are seated at a table, and employees are always masked up. Additionally, fully outdoor beach bars and exposed "safari taxis" require a mask.

Hand sanitizer and a sign reading "please sanitize hands before entering"
Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Aranoff

To get to the neighboring island of St. John, there are several marinas with ferries that transport passengers and cars back and forth. The nearest marina to where I was staying was a quick taxi ride from Sapphire Beach to the nearby town of Red Hook where there are shops, restaurants, and a ferry terminal to St. John and British Virgin Island Tortola — which requires a separate set of COVID-19 requirements for entry.

So in the spirit of island hopping — armed with my face mask, of course — I decided to board a ferry to St. John for a day trip. Sitting on the outdoor deck of the ferry, an employee made sure passengers were wearing masks, despite there being about a dozen people in a space of 50 seats.

A sign reading "no mask no service"
Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Aranoff

While spending the day on St. John, I stopped into a little hole-in-the-wall bar in Cruz Bay. The bar had just about 3 tables inside, and even though I could probably get up from my seat and walk out without taking more than one step, I had to wear my mask to do so.

While on both islands, mask-wearing seemed to take more importance over proof of vaccination as every indoor establishment had a sign requiring face coverings yet, I was not once asked about my vaccine status.

While travel is still complicated these days, the USVI is keeping its residents and visitors safe with its strict rules. And even though travel may not be 100% back to pre-pandemic times, I am reminded time and time again that life is unpredictable and travel, when done safely, can make us feel rejuvenated, refreshed, and in my case — much warmer.