This U.S. Destination Is Now the Fastest-Growing COVID Hotspot

This island paradise currently has the highest number of new COVID cases per capita nationwide.

The past week has brought some good news in the fight against the coronavirus in the United States, with new cases continuing to decline in many of the states previously overrun with COVID-19. But unfortunately, other states are not faring as well—in fact, some areas are seeing their first real brush with a major spike in coronavirus cases. And one of the destinations suffering the most is the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has suddenly become the fastest-growing COVID hotspot in the nation.

On Aug. 19, as COVID cases surged to unprecedented heights, the U.S. territory in the Caribbean announced that it would be closing itself off to tourists for 30 days, issuing stay-at-home orders for residents, and shutting down non-essential businesses, The New York Times reports. The island chain—which includes St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix—reported 189 new cases in the past week. That puts its per capita COVID cases—178 per 100,000 residents—higher than any other state or territory in the U.S. Texas and Mississippi are a close second and third with 175 and 174 new cases per 100,000, respectively.

St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands
Shutterstock/Paul McKinnon

"The recent infiltration of the virus into our residential institutions that house vulnerable members of our population creates an alarming level of risk," Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said at a press conference on Aug. 13. "This adds to the stress of the ongoing pandemic response that seemingly has no end in sight and is wearing out our health care and public safety infrastructure."

Bryan Jr.'s executive order to shut the Virgin Islands down has brought the vital tourism industry to a halt, closing all hotels to new guests, including prohibiting Airbnb hosts from checking in new arrivals.

Despite being a U.S. territory, the Virgin Islands initially limited travelers from entering during the early days of the pandemic before lifting those restrictions on June 1. In the wake of reopening to mainland travelers, the Virgin Islands saw COVID cases rise 3,500 percent from mid-June to mid-July, NBC News reported. According to the Virgin Islands Department of Health, at the time of reopening, the islands had 70 confirmed cases. As of Aug. 19, there have been 869 cases, indicating tourists from the mainland brought COVID to the Virgin Islands.

Beginning July 15, residents of mainland COVID hotspots were mandated to present test results showing they were negative for coronavirus or quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival to the Virgin Islands. Bryan Jr. also issued an order closing bars, prohibiting sitting or standing at bars in restaurants, and closing beaches at 4 p.m. on weekends.

"Finding the perfect balance between the public health and the livelihood of our community is no easy feat," Bryan Jr. said at the time. "It is a fine line and COVID changes it daily, but tread that line we must, if we are to make it to the other side of this pandemic."

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With the situation only worsening, Bryan Jr. was forced to take a more drastic approach. But many in the U.S. Virgin Islands see the looming threat of coronavirus as a risk that greatly outweighs the reward of keeping tourism afloat.

"In the short term, the prohibition on new leisure travel reservations in the U.S. Virgin Islands will likely have an adverse economic impact since almost one-third of the economy is tied to tourism," Kamal I. Latham, former CEO of U.S. Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority, told Essence. "However, it is in the best interests of the health and safety of the territory's residents to have a temporary pause and return to serving visitors when conditions improve." And for more on areas that are experiencing surges, check out These Are the Only 4 States Seeing COVID Cases Rise, Testing Czar Warns.

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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