By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government is continuing to “recalibrate” its COVID-19 travel protocols to give Bahamians “substantial protection without absolutely strangling tourism”, the attorney general said yesterday.
Carl Bethel QC told Tribune Business that internal administration discussions were continuing over “a one-size fits all approach” that would balance The Bahamas’ health and economic needs, with the issue of private aviation among the topics being assessed.
The attorney general, responding to this newspaper’s inquiries, on Friday sent a What’s App message disclosing that clause 26 of the Emergency Powers (COVID-19 Pandemic) (No.2) Order 2020 was set to be amended to require visitors arriving by private aviation - private pilots who disembark, their passengers and charter occupants - to quarantine for 14 days.
“Clause 26 dealing with ‘visitors’ will be extended to capture private jets. Amendment being drafted,” Mr Bethel wrote then. This would have brought visitors entering The Bahamas via private aviation into line with those coming by commercial airlines who, via that same order and clause 26, are required to quarantine for 14 days and then produce a negative COVID-19 PCR test result before being released.
However, that position appeared to have changed yesterday. Mr Bethel told Tribune Business that those arriving by private aviation will not have to quarantine, and - as before - must produce a negative COVID-19 negative PCR swab test taken within ten days of travel and an approved Bahamas health visa to enter this nation.
“The order, as framed, was targeting the mass market because when you’re bringing thousands of people it’s impossible to monitor them,” Mr Bethel said of the rationale for the commercial airline quarantine. “We couldn’t monitor a couple of hundred Freeporters who snuck through Nassau to Miami.....
“The order now is that everybody coming into the country, however they come into the country, has to have a negative COVID-19 test and health visa, and if they come by commercial airline they have to go into quarantine because there are too many people and we cannot keep an eye on them.”
He added: “I can say this much. The orders are being reworded in a way that we think will be able to capture everybody. The actual terms have not yet been settled because there’s some dialogue going on with the health professionals.
“Facing what they do now, their view is to say we should shut everything down. Their views have to be respected. That’s why we have the weekend lockdown and are taking the step to put persons arriving by commercial flights in quarantine.
“We’re trying to come up with one solution that gives substantial protection to the Bahamian people and the healthcare providers without at the same time absolutely strangling tourism. That’s the balance we’re trying to achieve.”
Mr Bethel said “the immediate crisis of this travel-related surge mandated firm steps” be taken to stop its spread through The Bahamas. “Having done that, we can recalibrate and have a look at something that will be more palatable to the travelling community and also the healthcare professionals,” he reiterated.
“We’re still in discussions that are ongoing over a one-size fits all approach that fits the Bahamian people at every level. It won’t be long before we advance that and we’ll see where we are.” Mr Bethel pointed out that his office was following “drafting instructions”, implying that all decisions were coming from the Competent Authority - meaning the Prime Minister’s Office.
The 14-day quarantine is likely to have the same deterrent effect on mass market travel and tourism as the Government’s previous move to ban all commercial air and sea services between The Bahamas and the US. Resorts World Bimini, in a message to guests, became the latest major resort to confirm it was closing again with effect from Saturday.
“As you are aware we are in unsettling times due to COVID-19,” the resort said. “Therefore, out of respect for the concerns of The Bahamas’ Prime Minister, Resorts World Bimini has made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend operations effective today, July 25, 2020.”
The Government, in a statement explaining the switch from a ban on US commercial passenger air and sea traffic to a 14-day quarantine for all visitors using such transportation, said this was designed to create “a uniform standard of treatment for all visitors” during the COVID-19 pandemic rather than single out individual countries.
“Importantly, it allows for the protection of the Bahamian people from the possible dangers of travel-related contagion in a manner which is consistent with our treaty obligations, and also with the provisions of the Chicago Convention, which regulates international air transport,” Mr Bethel said in a Friday statement.
That is the Convention on International Civil Aviation, but questions were immediately raised on this interpretation. Articles 14 and 89 of that convention allow member states, including The Bahamas, to take action to prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and to also have freedom in response to national emergencies.
Many observers believe the switch from ban to 14-day quarantine was made in response to US pressure, although the Prime Minister denied this on Friday. Mr Bethel, meanwhile, confirmed that private boaters and yachters will not have to be quarantined on the basis that they already have to remain on their boats and can only leave to obtain essential goods.
Describing such visitors as presenting “a comparatively small risk”, Mr Bethel said there had been no complaints or contact tracing showing any boaters had brought COVID-19 with them. However, given that Bahamian tourism has slowed to a mere trickle at best, many are likely to wonder why private aviation and boating visitors are still being allowed to enter The Bahamas.
Many, if not most of these, persons will either originate from or transit through Florida, a renowned COVID-19 ‘hot spot’. The US is now running at 1,000 COVID-19 deaths per day, near 4.2m cases and a total death toll approaching 150,000.