• As US downgrades Bahamas to ‘very high’ COVID risk
• Private sector: ‘Reverse spike in shortest possible time’
• Minister: Country can’t afford for cases to ‘get any worse’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Tourism industry chiefs yesterday warned The Bahamas “must reverse the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in the shortest possible time” after the country was downgraded by US health authorities.
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had sent “a major warning” to this nation and its prospects for a swift economic rebound by returning it to the highest risk “Level 4” ranking for COVID-19 spread.
Describing the federal health regulator’s actions as “a wake-up call”, Mr Sands said The Bahamas needed to react quickly to get COVID-19 cases back under control otherwise the progress made by re-opening both the tourism industry and wider Bahamian economy in recent months could be placed in serious jeopardy.
Urging Bahamians not to throw away these gains, the BHTA president reiterated that despite the ongoing vaccine roll-out “we have not crossed the finish line yet” and the country cannot afford to “veer off course” in its economic recovery efforts and squander “the sacrifices” made by thousands of locals and residents over the past year.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, last night echoed Mr Sands by warning that The Bahamas cannot afford for the latest spike in COVID-19 cases to “get any worse” and provoke the reintroduction of lockdowns and other restrictive public health measures that will retard the economy’s rebound and endanger thousands of jobs.
He suggested to Tribune Business that the increased infection rates are resulting from “COVID fatigue” among Bahamians and residents, with persons starting to lose their discipline some 13 months after the pandemic’s start, and warned that it “is not behind us” - especially since the country still does not have enough vaccines to inoculate all its citizens and residents.
Acknowledging that the CDC’s downgrade, and revised advisory warning US citizens against travelling to The Bahamas, “certainly can” have a deterrent effect that dampens visitor numbers, Mr Sands told Tribune Business: “It is concerning, and this is why we are reiterating the point about The Bahamas and Bahamian population not relaxing the health protocols.
“We have to correct and reverse this current trend in the shortest possible time so it does not have this negative impact on us. We have an opportunity to do this in a short period of time. This is a wake-up call for us to all become more refocused on the protocols; the ball is in each and every one of our courts to play a part in correcting this.
“I think we’ve made significant progress,” Mr Sands continued, “but I think we now have to get refreshed and refocused, and become disciplined again to get us back where we were a few weeks ago when the case numbers were less than 10 per day.
“I think this [the CDC action] is a warning. It’s a major warning to us, and we have the opportunity to react quickly and reverse this negative trend.” The CDC, in moving The Bahamas back to ‘Level 4’ and a “very high level of COVID-19”, urged all US citizens once again to avoid travelling to The Bahamas.
“Because of the current situation in The Bahamas even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants, and should avoid all travel to The Bahamas,” the US health authority warned. “If you must travel to The Bahamas, get fully vaccinated before travel. All travellers should wear a mask, stay six feet from others, avoid crowds and wash their hands.”
Such warnings could have a major deterrent effect on a US tourist source market that presently accounts for 90 percent-plus of all visitors to The Bahamas given the current travel restrictions still in place in Canada and much of Europe.
However, it is unclear how many Americans will pay heed to the CDC’s Bahamas downgrade, and/or whether this will influence any travel and vacation decision-making. And the revision is somewhat counterbalanced by the rapid COVID-19 vaccination rates and roll-out in the US, where some 50 percent of adults - and more than 80 percent of seniors - have had their first vaccine shots.
The CDC move, which reverses its upgrade of The Bahamas to ‘Level 3’ status just three months ago, comes in response to a significant recent spike in COVID-19 cases that has led to public health officials fearing the country faces a “third wave” of infections.
A further 55 COVID-19 cases were reported yesterday, including 21 on New Providence, 12 in Grand Bahama and nine in Abaco. Total cases stood just below 10,000 at 9,791, although only 468 of those were reported to be active. Of the latter figure, some 45 are currently in hospital, with four in intensive care.
The 55 new cases add to the 143 recorded over the preceding three days, leading Mr Sands in an official BHTA statement to warn that the CDC’s downgrade was “not a step in the direction The Bahamas wants to go” as it forges on with its own COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.
“The BHTA, and our private and public sector tourism partners, continue to emphasise how vital it is that we do not let our guard down. The measures we have deployed thus far have worked in our favour; social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, to name a few,” Mr Sands said.
“Now is not the time to celebrate a victory because we have not crossed the finish line. We can and will get there, but we must continue to deploy practicable common-sense steps, and adhere to proven protocols and comply with rules and regulations put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus.
“These, along with a robust vaccination strategy, are key to our ability to avoid the massive resurgence so many countries are facing right now. We have come too far to veer off course at this critical stage in our journey to a full and sustained recovery.”
Praising The Bahamas’ efforts in controlling COVID-19’s spread to-date, Mr Sands added: “I have personally spoken to taxi drivers, tour operators, owners and operators of small, medium and large businesses who are so grateful that business is coming back, so happy to return to work and provide for their families once again.
“We cannot allow apathy or COVID-19 fatigue to jeopardise all that we have accomplished, the sacrifices made by so many. Hope is on the horizon. We need to continue to be vigilant in our efforts to combat this virus.”
Mr D’Aguilar, telling this newspaper he is “not contemplating” the reintroduction of stricter COVID-19 measures and their impact, said “it’s certainly not surprising” that the CDC would downgrade The Bahamas back to ‘Level 4’ given the recent jump in detected cases.
“Clearly we now have to double down and recommit to observing the health protocols,” he argued. “We’re getting into the eighth inning. We’re tired and exhausted in observing these health protocols, we’re tired and exhausted with observing social distancing; and are probably getting relaxed.
“As a result you are seeing a number of events involving large crowds, and are relaxing the health protocols outlined in the legislation for this pandemic. This is not behind us. We don’t have sufficient vaccines in place to vaccinate all of us, so we have to observe the protocols and limit community spread.”
Asserting that there was no evidence to suggest that the recent COVID-19 spike had been imported by visitors, Mr D’Aguilar added: “Bad news impacts travel. We certainly don’t want to allow this get any worse because God knows we cannot fathom another period of very restrictive measures. That would be very impactful when we’re rebounding nicely.”
Pointing out that The Bahamas was not different from most countries in being ranked at ‘Level 4’ by the CDC, the minister said it had been “a major success to be in that club” that was ranked at ‘Level 3’ or higher even if it was for a short period of time.
However, he acknowledged that the return to ‘Level 4’ is “definitely going to impact on the speed and pace” of the rebound. Group travel business, which will likely be the last to return, is very mindful of such designations, Mr D’Aguilar said, although individual travellers are likely less likely to be influenced by it.
He also pointed out that there remained a tendency to treat The Bahamas as one island, rather than multiple destinations, with no recognition that many locations are still COVID-free.