Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and Lt. Gov. Tregenza Roach sat down together Thursday evening for a Press Box episode in the style of a fireside chat that delved into the challenges and successes of fighting a deadly pandemic over the last eight months.
The virtual town hall, streamed live on Facebook and broadcast on the government access channel 27VI, is held each week and billed as an opportunity to let officials talk with the viewers, rather than at them, and answer their questions.
“The way that you think about governor and lieutenant governor is so wildly different when you get in,” said Bryan, thinking back to when he and Roach decided to run for election. “Being lieutenant governor, you have a total separate job, so a lot of times we don’t actually get to enjoy the benefit of one another’s company as much as we would like,” he said.
“Getting people to understand that the role of lieutenant governor in the Virgin Islands is different from in any state … is a challenging one,” said Roach, who is commissioner of Banking, Insurance and Financial Regulation, and chairman of the Banking Board, “responsible for the entity and its divisions that really generates the second-highest amount of revenue for the government of the Virgin Islands. … Getting people to understand that I’m not actually a second lady in waiting …”
“Waiting for me to leave!” interjected Bryan, as both men laughed.
“There’s a full-time job there,” said Bryan.
As the territory has faced the COVID-19 pandemic and the inevitable slowing down of government services, Bryan said he has asked his staff to find permanent solutions to working from home. “One of the things that we certainly haven’t been able to figure out is how do you sit in your house and still be able to sit at the switchboard operator at the same time,” said Bryan.
Nevertheless, Roach and his team have done a “fantastic job” of keeping tax and revenue collections on track, he said. During the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the administration moved to reduce the budget and expenditures by 10 percent, to about $760 million, said Bryan. “Well, all-be-told, we have collected over $850 million in revenue in this calendar year, even though Main Street has been closed and we haven’t gotten a single cruise ship in, even though a lot of the construction projects we wanted have slowed down,” he said.
People wondered why he fought to keep the Limetree Bay Terminals refinery on St. Croix open, which was the source of a COVID-19 outbreak as some of its workers returned from the mainland, said Bryan. “I fought hard and worked with Limetree to keep that place open because there’s 3,000 workers thereabouts and we were still able to collect the taxes and make it through,” said Bryan.
“We have made every single payment – not only employees,” but also to the Government Employees’ Retirement System, the Water and Power Authority and vendors, as well as issued a total of $65 million in tax returns, said Bryan.
Roach in turn commended the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands, who paid their bills and taxes on time because they “understood one of the challenges would be keeping government afloat, and people tried their utmost to meet their obligations to the government.”
In turn, it was incumbent upon his staff to continue to provide services to keep businesses operating, whether through dealing with trademarks and corporations, or franchise taxes, even if in a reduced capacity due to the pandemic, said Roach.
“One of the things we really have to keep underscoring is that, yes, we’re managing a public health crisis, but there are different types of health, and there is health that comes from people feeling productive and useful in their lives,” said Roach. “Some people get a lot of satisfaction out of the work that they do, some people get a lot of satisfaction out of running their businesses and the interaction and engagements that they have with other people, and so I think people should recognize … that it is a real challenge to accomplish a balance,” he said.
“I think we use the word ‘shutdown’ loosely,” said Bryan. “The government has actually never shut down.”
Roach said his office used the slowdown in business as the territory endured two periods of closure to bring COVID-19 infections under control – the first from March to June 1, and the second from mid-August to mid-September – as an opportunity to revamp the way it does business by bringing more of it online, including a new property tax billing and payment system. His office also is expanding the online capacity of its Catalyst system that handles the registration of corporations and trademarks, said Roach. It will hold virtual seminars to educate users on Oct. 21, Oct. 28 and Nov. 5, he said.
“Coronavirus has definitely put a set of challenges before us, but it has definitely had its benefits, and one of those benefits has been the advent of technology,” said Bryan.
However, the street addressing initiative “is the most significant infrastructure project that we will undertake,” said Roach. While it had to be suspended due to the pandemic, work will resume at the end of October, he said, and when complete will give the USVI the ability to participate in the American Community Survey.
“The American Community Survey is the thing in between the censuses that helps you make adjustments as a jurisdiction to what you might have missed in terms of demographic information,” much like a mini-census, said Roach.
The initiative also will “improve business service delivery; it’s going to improve the census, and the census improvements mean access to federal programs and dollars,” said Roach, also urging people to participate in the 2020 census that is ongoing through Oct. 31.
By far the most challenging aspect of the pandemic has been “the whole concept of individual liberty” while living in a “me time,” said Roach.
“Individual liberty is fine if your actions don’t affect other people. But the reality is, with a contagious disease, every person who has it is an issue to every other person. So the government has an interest in stemming the contagion,” through social distancing and mask mandates, he said, because not only do you protect yourself, but you also protect other people.
“I think controlling personal behavior is always a challenge, but getting people to want to take care of other people … is challenging as well,” said Roach.
For Bryan, it was the realization early on that the U.S. Virgin Islands was largely on its own in the fight against the virus.
“I remember we would have meetings with the vice president and all the other governors, and early on I realized, these people didn’t have it together. Unlike a hurricane, we were on our own. There was nobody coming to save us, because they weren’t firing,” said Bryan. “That first decision to shut it down came to me about 2 o’clock in the morning. I remember thinking to myself, this is an easy decision. This is not about politics, this is not about ‘like, don’t like.’ This is simply about saving human lives. At this point we didn’t know anything about this disease. We were being misinformed that, oh, it was going to be done by summer, people wouldn’t die, it was just like another little cold, and we shut it down,” said Bryan.
The pressure was intense from naysayers, said the governor, and he said he has never forgotten the counsel he received from Roach, who told him, “’Remember, people who are talking do not have 110,000 souls counting on them to make a right decision.’ That has stuck with me throughout the whole time. I use it to today. It sticks with me. I hear you with that nice deep voice in my head,” said Bryan, laughing.
“Keeping people safe was and still is the first priority,” said Bryan. “But once I realized there was going to be no end to this in two months, in three months, then we had to march forward and take the precautions that we have. We learned a lot going through it, but it has been certainly a challenge over this last eight months.”
He worries, however, about the strain on the community of the social distancing restrictions that have meant no Carnival, no Easter camping, no July 4th celebrations, no Labor Day parties, said Bryan.
“There is a lull, and kind of a dullness, among our community that I’ve noticed,” he said. “People are beaten down. It’s been eight months. Whether you’re getting paid or you’re working. People can’t go on vacation, they need a break, they’re home, they’re dealing with the kids, their parents are locked away. There’s a very, very deep heaviness in the world.”
“It cuts to the very core of who we are as a person,” said Roach, who recalled going to a funeral on St. John and not being able to hug as one normally would do. “We don’t get a chance to talk about things like that. … What does it mean when people can’t touch one another? What does it mean for children whose social development really depends on them being in school with their peers, fighting, playing? What does it mean? It means that they will learn how to engage, to be with other people. So sometimes I think about what are going to be some of the lasting impacts and how do we make sure that we mediate what some of those impacts might be so that they might not be so lasting in the days to come. That’s a lot of work we have to do.”
Bryan recalled the times as a child when rain would force him and his playmates inside, where they would look longingly out the window, waiting for it to stop.
“We’re going to have to learn a way for us to become a community and come out in the rain and emerge from this, because this is not going away anytime soon. Put on your raincoat, which is now your mask, come out, let’s start to figure out ways to keep our community safe. We’re doing a good job so far … but we’ve got to get our mojo back and find a way to make sunshine out of rain,” said Bryan.