An Inside Look at the British Virgin Islands Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
On any given weekday during the tourist season, White Bay on Jost van Dyke is ground zero for everything that’s boozy and buzzy about the British Virgin Islands. Charter catamarans are often jammed into rows like tailgaters in front of the legendary Soggy Dollar Bar, home of the Painkiller cocktail, and rafters are draped with college football pennants, courtesy of BVI’s backslapping neighbor to the (far) north.
I’d seen White Bay empty like this once before, shortly after Hurricane Irma whipped through, leveling nearly everything on the beach. At the time, I had just moved to the islands. But now, I could see that with the borders closed for the past nine months, even little Jost — now handsomely rebuilt — was just another tourist outpost struggling to stay under COVID’s radar by shutting tourists out.
We had to haul a weekend’s worth of provisions across from Tortola, unsure that any restaurants would be open. Kevin, the expat Brooklynite who managed White Bay Villas, a manicured hideaway on the hill whose properties had been stunningly refurbished after Irma, seemed shockingly enthusiastic about being our personal driver for the weekend, even though there was hardly anywhere to go except the beach. But a short walk down from our two-bedroom villa to White Bay, something was cooking. Steam swirled out of a pot, stirred by a sullen man in Crocs who would normally be whisking tourists back and forth from the ferry dock in Great Harbour. It was an all-male affair today; the local women, some of whom would typically be taking food orders or confirming reservations, were up at one of the villas playing bingo. The next day, they would switch off.
“The women cook fish, the men cook goat,” Kevin explained, handing us a steaming cup of mutton, bones and all. It seemed easy to forgive these benignly chauvinistic rhythms of small-island life, as it might have been half a century ago, when donkeys, not taxis, chugged up and down the hills. Tourism has been king here for longer than most young islanders have been alive. But in the absence of the cha-ching of cash registers and roar of yacht motors, new rhythms had taken over. Rhythms of children in school uniforms tapping sticks along fence posts as they walk down the hill to town. Of the hooves of a goat prancing up the stairs to our villa every night, accompanied by a family of cats who had willingly adopted it, while I swung on the double-wide hammock and fed it grapes.
The next morning, we went snorkeling in the bay, something most tourists tend to forget they can do after five or so Painkiller cocktails. A few boats finally appeared from nearby Tortola. Soggy Dollar’s doors remain shuttered, but for a few hours, two other bars — Gertrude’s and Coco Locos — came alive. However, the boats chugged away as quickly as they came, and I began to think about how bafflingly empty an island of 200 people can feel at midday. My friends left on the early ferry, and I spent my last hours on a lounger under a sea grape tree on the eastern side of White Bay, meditatively floating. Normally, I would have been embarrassed to take bad selfies on a wooden swing, but there was no one around to judge — just a school of translucent fish in pods of two and three, ever-shifting against white sand, against blue water. against perfect silence.
It was a silence no longer dictated by the endless chug of ferries and dinghies, or by the urgent demands of tourists who want what they want when they want it. The date to throw open the borders had already been announced. The hustle would return. The islanders would become taxi drivers and cleaners and bartenders again. I was reminded of the phrase every expat has to learn the first time they get frustrated when something on the islands takes longer than they think it should: soon come.
How to Get to the British Virgin Islands
The BVI reopened its borders to visitors on Dec. 1, after being closed for nine months. Right now, the only authorized method of entry is via air at Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport (EIS) on Beef Island. The reopening of seaports, including ferry service from the U.S. Virgin Islands, has been postponed to Jan. 21.
All travelers must preregister and fill out a health declaration form within 48 hours of travel, as well as submit a negative PCR test obtained five days before arrival. Visitors also need to have a confirmed booking at a government-approved hotel, villa, or yacht, and agree to quarantine for four days upon arrival. Additionally, every traveler, including children, must complete an application to obtain a travel certificate — valid for five days — to give to airline personnel. This authorization can be used to make travel arrangements. (Keep a printed or electronic copy of this and your negative PCR results, along with your ticket and passport, to check-in and board the flight.)
Upon arrival, visitors will be subject to a screening and COVID-19 test, plus given access to the BVI Gateway app for health monitoring, after which they’ll be transported to their approved accommodations. There, they’ll quarantine for four days, but be able to move around the compound. Charter yachts will be able to leave the dock and moor at a list of 14 approved sites throughout the islands. Following the quarantine, one more negative test (on day four) will be required before being able to move freely. For more information, email email@example.com.