By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government’s adjustments to the COVID isolation and quarantine rules have strengthened the “building blocks of travel confidence” for the peak winter tourism season, a top hotelier says.
Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that the country’s largest economic sector “certainly got the reduction we were looking for” in the changes unveiled by the Ministry of Health and Wellness.
“The reductions are certainly in the right direction, and we support that,” he said. “It’s certainly something we’ve advocated for. All of these initiatives are building blocks to travel confidence, and the more these things are adjusted and corrected, the more consumer confidence increases and travel continues unabated.
“They are more aligned with best practices. These are all steps on a ladder, and we are certainly grateful for the movement in that direction. We must all work together to ensure the winter tourism season, notwithstanding any further external hits, can be very much a success. Things are going in the right direction now on all fronts.
“All of these steps are steps that are welcome, and we have thanked the Government for open communication and channels of collaboration to allow these issues to be discussed - and decisions made - in the best interests of health and safety as well as the economic success of the tourism industry.”
The tourism industry, and wider Bahamian private sector, had been advocating a shift away from the rigid 10-day isolation period for persons infected with COVID-19 as well as the 14-day quarantine for those who had been exposed to virus carriers.
They had been calling for The Bahamas to fall in line with US and UK practices, with both those countries having adopted five-day and seven-day quarantine periods, respectively. The subsequent changes are being viewed as a boost for tourism, as visitors no longer have to fear a lengthy quarantine if they test positive in The Bahamas, while also enabling locals to return to work more quickly once they test negative and receive the all-clear.
However, the acclaim was not universal. Jason Watson, AID’s president, told Tribune Business that the ten-day quarantine for unvaccinated ‘close contacts’ of COVID-infected persons was “baffling” given the availability, and access to, testing on a daily basis.
While praising the Government for responding to the private sector’s needs, he said in response to this newspaper’s inquiries: “Grateful the current administration is taking a more pragmatic approach, and the new guidelines for the isolation of positive cases are a tremendous improvement which will allow businesses and society to function.
“However, the quarantine period for unvaccinated close contacts is baffling and makes it very difficult for businesses to make adjustments. Individuals in Nassau can be tested seven days a week, so why lose ten days of productivity over the possibility of an infection?
“With this current policy, unvaccinated close contacts will have a much greater negative effect on society than positive cases. Hopefully, the Government will make appropriate changes to that policy urgently.”
Ben Albury, Bahamas Bus and Truck’s general manager, hailed the isolation/quarantine period changes as “fantastic” and “excellent”. He added: “I think that will definitely improve things as far as being able to fast track staff getting back to work, in particular, and getting things moving. I’m glad the ministry made the adjustments.
“I’ve had COVID personally, and it was good to be able to get back in the saddle quickly. After a short period of time, I felt well..... I’m definitely happy to hear there is no talk of suppressing the economy by lockdowns, curfews or archaic constraints. Everybody has learnt the protocols, and they can be adjusted accordingly as we move ahead.”
The Ministry of Health and Wellness reforms are seeking to provide greater flexibility while also still protecting public health. They segment cases, and COVID contacts, into those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated, and those who are asymptomatic and show mild signs from others who suffer more severe illness.
Persons who test positive for COVID, “and are asymptomatic or have mild to moderate illness and are not immunocompromised”, must now isolate for seven days. They can test again on day five, six or seven of their isolation and, if these are negative, can then be released.
However, they must then wear an N95/KN95 mask for a further three days. Alternatively, persons in this category - who are likely to comprise the majority of COVID infections - can isolate for ten days. If the fifth-seventh day test is positive, but symptoms improve, they can be released after 24 hours without a fever or needing medicine.
But those who are “severely symptomatic or immunocompromised” are required to isolate for 20 days. They can be released earlier if a doctor approves, but no earlier than ten days in.
As for “close contacts”, those who are “fully vaccinated and are not immunocompromised” do not have to quarantine. They must limit their movements to “essential activities” until a fifth day test comes back as negative. Those who are “unvaccinated and are not immunocompromised” must quarantine for ten days, and can be released thereafter if they test negative.