By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Requiring visitors to take a COVID-19 test before they enter The Bahamas is “a non-starter”, a Cabinet minister argued yesterday, while warning that the tourism industry’s July 1 re-opening will “inevitably” increase cases.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that The Bahamas would “suffer an unprecedented period of economic malaise” if it failed to restart the industry that provides the greatest amount of jobs and foreign exchange earnings despite the risks associated with triggering a potential second wave of COVID-19 infections.
Speaking after Dr Duane Sands, former minister of health, told the House of Assembly that no one should be admitted to The Bahamas without undergoing a PCR molecular swab test for COVID-19 prior to their arrival, Mr D’Aguilar admitted that the issue continues to pose “a conundrum” for the tourist-dependent nation.
He added, though, that the time, expense and logistical difficulty involved in mandating that tourists obtain such a test before departing for The Bahamas was viewed by the tourism industry as too difficult “an impediment to overcome” when seeking to attract business back to this nation after July 1.
“The Ministry of Tourism consulted industry and it was the firm belief of The Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) that requiring a PCA molecular swab COVID-19 test was a non-starter,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business.
“First of all, the airline industry was not prepared to check it, and industry felt this would be a very difficult impediment to overcome in one’s attempt to attract persons to this destination.”
Dr Sands, in his contribution to the 2020-2021 Budget debate in the House of Assembly, said he did not support opening The Bahamas’ borders to persons who had not been tested for COVID-19 - especially those coming from countries and areas that are currently suffering a surge in infections.
The US, which now has more than 2m confirmed COVID-19 cases, and accounts for 82 percent of all visitors who come to The Bahamas, is one such nation where infections appear to be spiking across a number of states. Dr Sands, while acknowledging the need to restart the Bahamian economy, argued that this nation should not endanger the gains created by its containment of COVID-19 to 103 confirmed cases to-date.
Agreeing with his former Cabinet colleague that the latest COVID-19 developments in the US were “disconcerting”, Mr D’Aguilar conceded that The Bahamas faces a major dilemma and “balancing act” between the economic devastation caused by not reopening a travel-dependent economy and the health risks associated with admitting potential virus carriers.
Warning that the tourism re-opening will almost certainly trigger an increase in positive COVID-19 cases, the minister told this newspaper: “This is a conundrum for The Bahamas. On the one side we need to restore our economy, and an integral component of this economy is tourism.
“But, inevitably, with the arrival of more persons on the island, there will undoubtedly be an uptick in the number of positive COVID-19 cases..... This is the conundrum. It’s not easy. We could sit back and say we will not let anybody in, but The Bahamas would suffer an unprecedented period of economic malaise. It’s a balancing act.”
Referring to Dr Sands’ warning, Mr D’Aguilar added: “He’s right. It’s disconcerting what’s happening in our core market, the US. It’s a very difficult situation to be in.” He said the “ideal” would be for a rapid COVID-19 test to be administered to tourists before their arrival in The Bahamas, but such a device is simply not available yet.
Confirming that all tourists, Bahamians and non-Bahamians will still be required to undertake a COVID-19 PCR molecular swab before entering The Bahamas prior to July 1, Mr D’Aguilar said the borders will still re-open to private aviation, boats and yachts from June 15 as these niches can both be closely monitored and register their arrivals in advance electronically.
The minister’s comments mirror those he gave during the tourism industry’s re-opening announcement on June 2, where he disclosed that requiring a COVID-19 PCR test will “no longer be viable” given the time required for the findings to come back. Temperature screening of persons on arrival at air and sea ports, and their completion of health questionnaires so the individual risk they pose can be better assessed, will be the preferred methods.
“In terms of testing as we know it, that will no longer be reasonable,” Mr D’Aguilar added then. “We just have to implement and comply with the practices of social distancing, mask wearing, and that will help us to mitigate the risk, not eliminate it.”
However, Dr Hubert Minnis, in his pre-Labour Day press conference, said no decision had been made on what form of COVID-19 screening/testing would be required following the tourism industry’s July 1 re-opening, stopping short of what was announced by Mr D’Aguilar.
The latter, meanwhile, said “no one quite knows yet” what the strength of Bahamian tourism’s rebound will be once the industry re-opens on July 1. “It will probably be a slow ramp up. The world is still somewhat unsettled,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business.
“People are still assessing whether they wish to travel in this environment, but The Bahamas is performing well in terms of interest on Trip Advisor. They performed a study which showed The Bahamas as a destination to travel to in the Americas was experiencing a lot of interest primarily because we’ve indicated we’re prepared to open.
“But it’s a fluid situation. The Government reserves the right to reverse its decision at any time, but it’s not an easy decision by any means.”