The Port Authority has been authorized to hire 35 temporary health screeners for passengers arriving at the territory’s airports after the governing board approved the measure at its meeting Wednesday, held via Zoom.
The National Guard currently is tasked with screening airport arrivals – conducting temperature checks after passengers deplane, directing them to fill out virus questionnaires and gathering the COVID-19 test results required of those traveling from areas deemed high-risk by the Centers for Disease Control.
Once the logistics are worked out with the Health Department, the workers will assist in reviewing the paperwork and test results behind the National Guard, said Port Authority Director of Human Resources Deborah Richardson. They will be paid $15 to $20 per hour, based on their education and experience, while two will take a lead role at $23 per hour, Richardson told the board. Eighteen will be based at Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas and 17 at Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix.
The Health Department will pick up the tab of $406,963 through its CARES Act funding, said Richardson.
Executive Director Carlton Dowe said the Port Authority was merely seeking authorization from the board to have a memorandum of understanding that the Health Department will pay the bill in the event the health workers are needed.
“There is no intention for the Port Authority to foot this bill,” said Dowe, noting that the National Guard is under contract to conduct the screening until the end of December. “If we don’t have to pull the trigger, then we won’t,” he said.
But the issue raised questions about what the Port Authority is doing to screen passengers at the ferry terminals in Red Hook on St. Thomas and Cruz Bay on St. John, and whether any of the workers could be deployed to those locations.
“The weakness is in the procedures at the ferry terminals,” said board member and Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte.
In fact, the National Guard is doing a good job of screening airport arrivals, while ferry passengers go largely unmonitored, said board secretary and chairman of the Economic Development Authority Kevin Rodriquez.
Rodriquez said he visited St. John with a COVID team on Friday, and “there was no enforcement officer on the dock. There was trash all over the ground. The place looked like a dump,” he said, adding that he and the team proceeded to find a broom and other supplies to clean up the area.
“One time I’ve been in St. John and seen an officer on the dock. … It’s one hot mess. … It’s a recipe for disaster. That’s my personal opinion,” said Rodriquez.
While the Port Authority is facing a shortage of officers, between terminations and resignations, with a need to hire nine more, “that’s no reason why we shouldn’t have personnel on St. John,” said Dowe.
St. Thomas Marine Manager Matthew Berry said it has not been for a lack of trying. He has been in talks with the Health Department – the lead agency on the pandemic response – since it requested the National Guard’s help to conduct screening at the airports on June 30, Berry told the board. “We are discussing it and trying to get something together,” he said, adding that he expects to have an answer in a few days “to alleviate this issue we have” with ferry travel.
While Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s latest order halting all leisure travel to the territory and prohibiting any new check-ins for 30 days as of Aug. 19 will help in the short-term, as tourist traffic is expected to drop dramatically, the board and Port Authority staff agreed it’s no time for anyone to let their guard down.
Strictly enforcing mask-wearing, social distancing and screenings at Port Authority properties “is the new normal that we have to accept,” said Dowe.