By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
UNITED States President Joe Biden yesterday signed an executive order requiring travellers to quarantine on arrival to the US, potentially dealing what Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar says could be a devastating blow to the Bahamian economy.
Mr D’Aguilar, in an interview with The Tribune, expressed a desire for the US to forgo the rule for the English-speaking Caribbean.
President Biden’s announcement comes as COVID-19 variants in the United Kingdom and South Africa – that are said to be more infectious, but not more deadly than the original strain – have spread around the world.
“In light of the new COVID variants that you’re learning about, we’re instituting now a new measure for individuals flying into the United States from other countries,” President Biden said during a press conference the day after his inauguration.
“In addition to wearing masks, everyone flying to the United States from another country will need to test before they get on that plane, before they depart, and quarantine when they arrive in America.”
It is not clear when the quarantine requirement will take effect. The parameters of the policy have not yet been outlined.
It was announced by US officials last week that all travellers entering the country would have to have a negative COVID-19 test, beginning January 26.
President Biden’s executive order says the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Secretary of Transportation and the Secretary of Homeland Security “shall promptly provide” him with a plan for how the US government could implement the “CDC-recommended periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation after a flight to the United States from a foreign country.”
The order further says: “It is the policy of my administration that, to the extent feasible, travellers seeking to enter the United States from a foreign country shall be required to produce proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test prior to entry; and required to comply with other applicable CDC guidelines concerning international travel, including recommended periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation after entry into the United States.”
The CDC currently advises people who participate in “higher-risk activities” during international travel to be tested three to five days after travel and to stay home for seven days after arriving in the US, even if they test negative for COVID-19.
According to the CDC, higher risk activities include travelling from a country or US territory with a Level 2, Level 3 or a Level 4 Travel Health Notice.
The Bahamas currently has a Level 4 CDC Travel Notice.
President Biden’s actions are in sharp contrast to his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, who has been accused of not doing enough to stop the deadly spread of COVID-19 in the US.
The new quarantine requirement comes after local resorts and hotels, buoyed by the stable COVID-19 situation in the country, began to reopen.
Atlantis welcomed 2,500 employees back last month, though the resort has since furloughed some workers after experiencing lower than expected occupancy levels. Baha Mar, meanwhile, reopened in December with 1,800 employees.
“This news is devastating because even though the specifics of the quarantine have not been articulated, any prospective traveller is going to be uncertain and unsure of the protocols that they will have to undertake when they return home,” Mr D’Aguilar said yesterday.
“This is bringing instability to the travel market, uncertainty and that will deter people from travelling internationally. One could understand the United States is now implementing more stringent protocols in their country and we did the same thing too, but this is going to be significantly impactful. A traveller deciding they want to go on holiday, they are to navigate our protocols and once they get to their destination, they are to navigate protocols to go back home. For some, it’s going to be too much. We already have world travel down by 70 percent, this is going to probably negatively impact that percentage even greater. It’s quite depressing really.”
Tourism officials have sought a Bahamas exemption from the impending requirement that travellers to the US produce a negative COVID-19 test result. Mr D’Aguilar suggested officials will seek a similar exemption for any quarantine requirement.
“I will reiterate my earlier comments which are, the English-speaking Caribbean have relatively low levels of COVID, have small populations and as such are very low risk to the United States and given our tourism dependency on the United States – also understanding that we are in their sphere of influence – those countries that are as tourism-dependent as we are, we’re asking that we be given special considerations given our low-risk status,” he said.
“This is a body blow. We need our good neighbour to the north to seriously consider the impact that this decision will have on countries that singularly rely on visitors from the United States for much of their economic existence.”
Mr D’Aguilar said tourism operators around the country are likely in shock following President Biden’s announcement.
“The (order is) a little vague,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Caribbean is small in stature, but this decision is going to hurt us quite tremendously so we need the United States to look at the Caribbean in a different light. We’re not Europe. We’re not Asia. I notice (the executive order) talks about their brothers in Mexico and Canada but don’t forget your small brothers and sisters right off your border. After all, Nassau is the closest capital.
“I’m also not sure how this will impact the cruise industry. I would presume this makes it even more difficult to start that industry up,” he said.
Last year, The Bahamas briefly required all travellers entering the country to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. That policy was later changed and travellers now must have a negative PCR test to enter the country, a travel health visa and if staying more than five days, must take an antigen test on day five.