By FELICITY INGRAHAM
When Prime Minister Hubert Minnis announced on July 19 that the borders of The Bahamas would be closed to travellers from the United States by Wednesday, July 22, there was a mad scramble for Bahamians who were travelling to return home. They did not want to end up in a situation where they were stuck in America for who knows how long until PM Minnis decided to reopen the border.
That decision caused a drastic change in plans for hundreds of Bahamians. On Bahamasair.com, ticket prices leapt from around $150 to $540, and then $940 as seats to get home became a hot commodity. International carriers like Jet Blue also saw a spike in bookings to Nassau. With just three days to figure it out, some Bahamians and residents found other ways to get home, such as private yachts and charter flights. Even though charter flights were still allowed to come in, many did not want to chance another announcement with another change of plans, so even charters were busy bringing people home before the three-day window closed.
Among them was a 21-year-old university student, who shared his story of coming home and being quarantined upon arrival. Initially, the Bahamasair flight was late, but Bahamians are generally acclimated to it and waited patiently in the airport, feeling confident they would at least arrive safely. He said that while waiting on the flight, the agent announced that it would not be a direct flight, as they would stop in Freeport before arriving in Nassau.
“When we were in the air and we were supposed to land in Freeport, the captain announced that air traffic control had not cleared us for landing as yet,” he shared.
“He said we would hang about 24 miles west of Grand Bahama to give them time to clear us. About 20 minutes later, we made our descent into Freeport.”
Once in Freeport, a man who appeared to be airport personnel took everyone’s passport and placed them into a bin he was carrying. He told the passengers the passports would be given to immigration officers in the terminal to stamp as admitted into the country. They waited on the plane for about an hour as the man took the passports into the terminal, and then had to return each passenger their passport, with the help of stewardesses.
The student said he fell asleep at some point during the hour and was told that a few Freeport passengers boarded the flight, but he could not confirm it, save to say that it did appear there may have been a few new passengers.
Finally, they were up in the air and on their way to New Providence. In the terminal, he said he met a few lines where all of the passengers of the flight were to be processed. Nurses from the Ministry of Health were seated at tables to process travellers.
“It took hours for them to process all of us,” he said.
“People were not social distancing on the line, because they were tired and wanted to go home. It was already a long day. They couldn’t social distance at the tables with the nurses either, because there weren’t enough tables for them to be spaced out.”
The nurses, he said, were accommodating and answered all their questions as best they could. However, some of the people became irate, complaining they did not have food or water for hours, and it was difficult having to stand in line for such a long time. If any of these travellers did contract the COVID-19 virus, not having water would only exacerbate their situation.
They were also upset because only the first few travellers were allowed to go home. One of the nurses announced that they got a directive from the Minister of Health, who was instructed by the Prime Minister, to put them all in mandatory quarantine. Shortly thereafter, police officers appeared. Some people said they felt like criminals as the officers stood at the perimeters of the area to make sure no one left.
“When it was my time to be processed, they put a Push Talk PTT app on my phone, and took information from me, including directions to my home,” he said.
“I was just ready to go home. But they let me know that we would not be able to go home. We had another wait as buses arrived and took us to Breezes Hotel. The nurses couldn’t answer questions to explain how long we would be there. There were people who had issues because not all their bags came. One guy said he had another flight in the morning. No one could give us information. They told us that when we get to Breezes, officials there would be able to inform us of what’s next. But when we got to Breezes on the Immigration bus, only Defence Force officers were there, and they couldn’t give us any information.”
He told me that they did not practice social distancing on the bus, and people were so exhausted at that time that they went with the instructions to fill all the seats. When they arrived, the processing to get into the rooms was slow, and some people got caught in the rain as they waited for their time to be processed.
Once they arrived in the rooms, only some of the people received food. Others did not receive any food that night. People who were on flights from Freeport were also quarantined at the hotel, and they said they did not receive food that night either. Many said they did not have any water. Their only reprieve is that officers allowed them to call family members who brought them food and water close to midnight. Officers received the items and took them to the rooms.
The following morning, he said that some people did not receive breakfast either, and that water was scarce. In the afternoon, nurses came and evaluated them, followed by a doctor. Most people were not cleared to go home until that evening.
He is currently in self-quarantine at home and being monitored by the app. He said that if a rush decision was made, the health and safety of the citizens of the Bahamas should have been paramount. Food and water, basic necessities, as well as proper information would have gone a long way in easing the minds of the many who were caught in that situation.