By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
TOURISM Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar yesterday hit out at critics who knocked the government for its decision to re-open the country’s borders in early July, insisting the rise of COVID-19 cases in the country was not “tourist-related” but “domestic grown”.
The minister was responding to criticism from the opposition party which lamented that the government had not re-opened the country’s borders in a responsible way.
In a statement released yesterday, PLP leader Phillip “Brave” Davis said: “Guided by the medical and public health experts on our PLP task force, we repeatedly talked about the need to re-open wisely and the importance of expanding our nation’s capacity for testing and contact tracing.
“If the country was free of COVID-19 at the time of re-opening, as the prime minister declared, then any new cases were imported. The focus therefore has to be at the borders and yet the prime minister continues to focus on criticising Bahamians.”
However, speaking to reporters at Government House Mr D’Aguilar defended the move against critics who said the borders were opened too prematurely. He said the surge of cases was not a result of tourists entering the country, but rather due to Bahamians travelling abroad.
In view of this, Mr D’Aguilar suggested the government was perhaps not strict enough with its travel protocols for residents leaving and entering the country.
He said: “I completely disagree with them. It was not a tourist-related matter. Unfortunately, citizenry took advantage of their increased ability to travel and you will see that all of the cases are really domestic grown, and the foreign visitors have seemingly to date, not impacted us.
“Unfortunately, you could not create two separate economies and you couldn’t create two separate set of rules so of course the rules must apply to all and in our attempt to get a citizenry or the number of cases in Grand Bahama back under control, the prime minister felt compelled to do what he had to do.”
He continued: “But I don’t think anyone has shown me any evidence at least that it was because of foreign visitors coming into the country that we had a growth in cases, so I think we had that group of protocols working well. It’s just that maybe with hindsight we were not strict enough on Bahamians going in and out of the country.
“We have to rethink our strategy as it relates to visitors, but also to our own citizenry moving in and out of the country.”
In March, the government closed the country’s borders to all incoming commercial travel, including Bahamians, to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. At the time, some relief flights were allowed to accommodate Bahamians and residents stuck abroad.
International commercial travel resumed on July 1 in a move officials said would help jumpstart the country’s tourism industry.
However, since then, The Bahamas has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases, particularly in Grand Bahama.
In an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis on Sunday banned all commercial flights and vessels from entering the country beginning on Wednesday. However, he said commercial travel from Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union will be permitted.
The move has since attracted international attention, with many focusing on the ban of commercial travel from US countries.
However, Mr D’Aguilar said he wanted to dispel the myth that American visitors are not allowed to enter the country.
“The Bahamas is open to the United States, you just cannot come here by commercial aircraft and you can come here by private aircraft or by pleasure boat and so that was incorrect and we’re going to correct that,” he said.
Asked yesterday if he expects to receive any “pushback” from the US due to the restrictions, the minster replied that he didn’t expect to receive any negative feedback.
“So, I don’t anticipate any push back from the United States,” he told reporters. “I think they see what we did and why we did it and once the numbers from Grand Bahama settle, they will understand why we did what we did.
“And the European market and the Canadian market, first of all, we have no flights coming in from Europe and the Canadian market is really one flight a week so we need to fix our interaction with the United States both by our people going and out of the States and the protocols that they will now have to undergo when they return and obviously the ones we were using with the foreign visitors.
“And the evidence I have right now in front of me, I have no known cases created by foreign visitors coming into the country. They were all following the protocols, getting the COVID tests. We were screening them before they came so I think that was working well.”