By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
DESPITE most businesses in New Providence being set to re-open on Monday, Finance Minister Peter Turnquest said he anticipates it will still take several weeks until the government fully re-opens the country’s borders allowing for the resumption of domestic and international travel in all islands.
This comes after Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis announced on Monday the resumption of commercial activity in the capital, which will allow most businesses in New Providence to resume operations under certain restrictions, including restaurants and retail stores.
The news, which came as a surprise to many, was a sharp reversal for Dr Minnis, who just last week announced an immediate seven-day near full lockdown for New Providence in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
However, on Monday, Dr Minnis maintained that new COVID-19 data suggests no hard lockdown is needed at this time for the island. As it relates to the current lockdown provisions, Dr Minnis said the restrictions will remain in place until 5am next Monday.
Speaking to reporters ahead of a Cabinet meeting yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister expressed hope that the eased restrictions will help to revitalise the economy.
He said: “Well, hopefully as we open up, we’ll get the domestic economy started to go again. Hopefully, we will not have any cause to have to go back in a curfew situation or lockdown situation. That will allow for some domestic activity to happen and people to go back to work.
“It’s still going to be a few weeks, I imagine, before we open the borders even for domestic travel, much less for international travel. And so, the tourism sector is going to be under pressure, but hopefully we will have a positive experience with this particular lockdown and we’ll be able to get back to the international travel as quickly as we can.”
Mr Turnquest said while he could not give a definitive date concerning the resumption of international travel, finance officials are eying late October or early November as a potential reopening date.
“I do not have that date,” he said. “I think the Minister of Tourism will be better (able) to answer that question. But from the Ministry of Finance perspective, we’ve always said that we’re looking towards a.. late October to early November opening and that’s where our budget forecasts puts us, so we’ll see. Hopefully, we’ll be able to meet that date.”
Last week, Tourism Parliamentary Secretary Travis Robinson told The Tribune that tourism officials were looking at late October as the return of its global marketing strategies, hoping by then the country is ready to reopen.
“We are looking at around late October for Phase One (of the reopening) and the early part of November, if everything pans out, for the final phase as we go back out and infiltrate the market with the tourism brand of The Bahamas,” Mr Robinson told this newspaper.
There have been concerns that the resumption of international travel could possibly lead to another wave of the virus more deadly than the previous ones as seen with the second COVID-19 wave.
Responding to those concerns yesterday, Mr Turnquest said the issue is not with tourists coming into the country, but rather Bahamians travelling to COVID-19 hotspots and subsequently returning home.
Ever since the country re-opened its borders in early July, the Bahamas has seen over 1,600 additional COVID cases reported, with the total as of Monday standing at 1,798.
Family Islands that were once deemed COVID-free have also recorded cases in recent weeks.
This, according to Mr Turnquest, is why it’s so important for Bahamians to remain disciplined and adhere to all the COVID-19 safety guidelines implemented by health officials.
He said: “… Less than one percent of those new infections came from foreigners. They were all domestic cases or persons who travelled and brought back the virus, so we can put in place strategies to quarantine to mitigate the risk that the tourist will provide, but it is us that we have to be concerned about.
“Obviously, we don’t want to have a situation where foreigners can come and Bahamians can’t come and go and so it is incumbent upon us to make sure that we are disciplined about all of the protocols and have a heightened awareness as we travel because, for instance, we know that Florida is a hotspot. So, the tourists aren’t necessarily the issue. It’s us.”
In an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, Mr Turnquest also urged small businesses yesterday to ensure all the necessary health protocols are being followed when they resume operations on Monday.