At 7 p.m. on March 19, Riverside Village President Ben Sells picked up his cellphone and dialed in to chair that night’s meeting of the Board of Trustees. Every elected official, along with the village’s manager, clerk and attorney attended the meeting by conference call, with members of the public able to listen in via a livestream broadcast on Riverside TV.
The extraordinary measure was the result of an executive order by the governor allowing virtual meetings to avoid public gatherings and limiting the spread of COVID-19.
While other elected officials participated in the call from their homes, Sells was chairing the meeting from the hull of sailboat off the north coast on Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands. He’d dropped anchor in The Bight Bay, far enough away from boisterous beachside bars to ensure some quiet.
“Surreal” is how Sells described the experience. At the same time, he said, “I would’ve done exactly the same thing had I been home.”
A late winter trip to the British Virgin Islands has been something Sells has done for the past 20 years. It’s a business trip, actually, related to his company Fairwind Sail Charters, which he operates out of Chicago. Sells teaches sailing and once a year organizes a flotilla for himself and his students in the Caribbean.
Each participant leases a boat; these are not little vessels, but check in at 38 to 46 feet. The boats are stocked with provisions and the flotilla basically island-hops for a week.
“This year we had enough boats that I was down there two weeks,” said Sells.
When he arrived in Tortola on March 5, while there were no cases of COVID-19 in the British Virgin Islands, it was on people’s minds.
“Even at that point, people were wiping down things on the plane, and when we got there, there were two hand sanitizer stations when we got into the customs line,” Sells said. “Within three days, they were taking temperatures and asking questions.”
Sells said the islands’ government moved quickly to ban cruise ships from docking, a move that set off a small wave of panic buying at local stores. By March 19, the British Virgin Islands had closed its borders, leaving Sells a little uncertain whether he’d be able to get out of the Caribbean when his second flotilla wrapped up on March 22.
“What I was hearing down there was the devastating impact of disinformation,” Sells said. “There were all kinds of rumors, like the U.S. was going to close down its borders. People were believing this stuff.”
While the first flotilla group of seven boats hopped the islands without a hitch, the uncertainty that settled in after the British Virgin Islands government announced it would close its borders cut the second flotilla short.
“By that point people were really afraid,” said Sells.
One day into the second flotilla one boat’s sailors left and went home. Two days later, those sailing the flotilla’s two other boats also decided to get out.
All the while, at home, things were changing quickly. By the time Sells’ second flotilla set sail on March 14, the panic buying at home had started and soon Gov. J.B. Pritzker would announce the closure of bars and restaurants.
By the time Sells arrived back in the U.S. on March 22, the governor had issued a statewide stay-at-home order.
Had it been a decade earlier, Sells might not have had a very good idea what was going on at home. But with boats equipped with WiFi and a stronger cellular system in the British Virgin Islands, Sells was able to maintain daily contact with Riverside Village Manager Jessica Frances.
As his trip entered its second week, that contact became more frequent.
“Given the communication, as far as my responsibility as president, I felt comfortable I was able to do everything I needed to do from there,” Sells said.
His main concern was his cellphone dropping during the Riverside Village Board’s March 19 meeting.
“It’s still in the islands, and nothing down there is for sure,” Sells said. “I just made sure [Trustee] Doug Pollock was ready to step in if we lost communication. It partly went well, because we dramatically collapsed the agenda.”
The trip back to the states was routine, said Sells, who said that like everyone else he’s been trying to stay put. He said he breathed a sigh of relief later in his stay in the Caribbean after he and a friend were exposed the first day in a taxi van to a group of tourists from Italy.
“He and I both had that on our mind for two weeks,” Sells said. “The underlying fear is real.”