By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
The government yesterday reversed course on its COVID-19 tourism protocols by announcing that all visitors must produce evidence of negative PCR swab tests to enter The Bahamas from July 1.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister for tourism and aviation, told the House of Assembly that the government had decided to maintain the existing requirements, or status quo, for the tourism industry’s full re-opening because of the threat posed by rising COVID-19 infection rates on its largest visitor source market, the US.
He used his budget debate contribution to say: “There has been much concern expressed about the re-opening of the country to foreign visitors, allowing them and Bahamians returning home, after July 1, to enter the country without some form of testing to determine their COVID-19 status.
“The concern expressed has been as a result of what we have all being watching on our televisions, and reading on social media and in the newspapers, about what is happening in the US, the source of 82 percent of our foreign visitors.
“With the reopening of businesses in all 50 states, and the protests that have been taking place in many of the major cities throughout the US, most states are now reporting spikes in the number of positive results from COVID-19 tests.”
As a result, Mr D’Aguilar said: “This has put The Bahamas in an extremely difficult position. On the one hand, we need foreign visitors to return to our country to restart out economy. Foreign visitors from the US, especially from nearby Florida, Georgia and Texas and the north-east states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts, form the bulk of our annual visitors. We need them to come to restart our tourism sector and put our people back to work.”
“However, there are the legitimate health concerns that these very people that we need to restart our vital tourism sector, and put our people back to work, could end up causing a spike in COVID-19 cases here in The Bahamas and undoing the excellent results that the Ministry of Health has achieved in keeping our death rate low.”
“Unfortunately, the government faces a dilemma to which there is no easy decision. Open up and face a potential spike in COVID-19 cases and possible deaths, or stay closed and face continued economic hardship,” he continued.
“Given the spike in the number of positive COVID-19 tests in the US, and the uncertainty surrounding just how many cases will require hospitalisation, the Government of The Bahamas has decided to maintain the current status quo until further notice. What we mean by that is that the Government of The Bahamas, which now requires a COVID-19 test to enter the country up to July 1, will also require a COVID-19 after July 1.”
Mr D’Aguilar’s announcement confirms that the negative COVID-19 PCR tests that must be provided by visiting boaters and private aviation passengers, after those niches were opened up on June 15, will remain in place indefinitely as a requirement that all incoming tourists must fulfill.
The government had previously hoped to admit tourists through checks at the border point-of-entry, including health declarations and temperature scans, but the recent spike in US COVID-19 infections - especially in Florida and other major tourist source markets - made such relaxation impossible.
Both Dr Duane Sands, the former minister of health, and the Consultant Physicians Staff Association (CPSA), representing the more senior doctors at Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH), had all warned against removing the requirement for a negative PCR swab test for COVID-19 amid concerns that this could compromise The Bahamas’ gains to-date in containing the virus.
Mr D’Aguilar told the House of Assembly yesterday: “When we made our initial decision, evidence supported the opening of the tourism sector without the test. We had the full support of the tourism sector for this decision. But things have changed. The situation has become unclear and ever-changing, so a prudent government must reassess and readjust all decisions related to this COVID-19 virus as the situation evolves on the ground.
“But I wish to impress, once again, on the Bahamian people, the difficulty of the decisions that we have to make. Stay closed, and make it difficult for the economy to reopen, and we will continue to suffer economic hardship and high unemployment, or open too quickly or too wide and face an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and possible fatalities.
“This is a hard situation to get right, Mr Speaker, but we will do our endeavour best to walk that fine line to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 as best as we can, hopefully with the full support and prayers of the Bahamian people.”