Masks and Covid test required as Caribbean cautiously reopens

Travel | Jacqueline Charles 8 Jul 2020

After more than two months of watching their tourism-dependent economies get decimated by the coronavirus amid airport, beach and hotel closures, Caribbean nations are starting to reopen their borders to tourists again.

But the experience won't look anything like the one visitors may have had six months ago.

Traveling during the global pandemic will now mean health and safety protocols for hoteliers and tour operators and uncertainty for airlines as island governments demand face masks, temperature checks and Covid-19 testing for passengers .

"There is an expectation that if you are staying in the territory and you feel you have some of the known symptoms for the coronavirus, you report immediately to the government powers that be and then begin self-quarantine," said Joseph Boschulte, commissioner of tourism for the US Virgin Islands.

As the pandemic hit in March, governor Albert Bryan Jr closed the islands of St Thomas, St Croix and St John to all visitors and banned hotels, guesthouses and bed and breakfasts from accepting new guests.

Now the islands are trying to lure them back and hoping temperature screenings at the airport and mandatory face masks and social distancing, along with the health and safety protocols for businesses, will be enough.

"Eventually, you have to make some steps to try and stimulate your economy. What you do to prepare is key and we are putting the necessary mitigation in place," Boschulte said.

While the virus has mostly been contained in the English-speaking Caribbean, reopening airports and cruise ports remain a thorny matter as countries try to figure out how to balance lives with livelihoods.

The region is the world's most dependent on tourism, and after months of closed airports, a number of carriers have announced the resumption of some service for the summer, pending the lifting of restrictions on border closures.

To mitigate against a surge, a number of Caribbean countries are turning to testing.

Already a requirement for travelers to Haiti and the Bahamas, a negative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction test is also being required in St Lucia. In Antigua and Barbuda, officials will run tests upon arrival.

Whether the new protocols will be enough to lure tourists back remains to be seen, as officials concede that safety will be a top priority for consumers and the region should expect to see a different kind of visitor.

While St Lucia, Antigua and Jamaica have reopened to international travelers, their neighbors are choosing to move more slowly.

The issue, say regional watchers, is that once airports resume operations, a lot of stranded nationals will head home, straining countries' quarantine capacities.

"Where possible, we are encouraging testing along with a range of other core health safety protocols, which destinations and companies are putting in place," said Frank Comito, the chief executive officer of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.

Comito acknowledged that the challenge with testing has been getting the volume of approved PCR tests available, the cost and the time it takes for securing results. Also, the airlines do not want to be responsible for policing such requirements.

Antigua prime minister Gaston Brown said the bottom line is that countries will have to learn to live with Covid-19. Visiting the eastern Caribbean island will not only mean staying at a hotel, but being subjected to a rapid Covid test.

"The hotels have been transformed into biosecured properties, with strict health protocols to prevent the individuals from contracting and transmitting Covid," he said.

Visitors who test positive will be isolated and treated at an infectious disease control center the twin island nation has fully equipped with ventilators and other medical equipment to treat patients who get critically ill from Covid-19.

"We believe that with the continued vigilance and personal responsibility of our people, that we will continue to be successful in containing the disease," Brown said.

Miami Herald (TNS)

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