Both Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis and Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar have blamed Bahamians returning from travel for the surge of COVID-19 cases that has led to a two-week lockdown of Grand Bahama starting tomorrow night.
The Bahamas recorded 70 cases in 13 days — 51 of those cases were on Grand Bahama. Health officials have only told us that three had a history of travel.
The travel history for more than 30 cases confirmed in the last two weeks has still not been provided.
Prior to July 8, The Bahamas went 23 days without any cases being reported.
Grand Bahama had not seen a case in 64 days.
When the borders fully reopened on July 1, it was obvious that the country would see more cases.
The prime minister’s decision to allow Bahamians and residents to travel abroad and return to the country within 72 hours without any testing requirement directly led to the increased numbers, according to what D’Aguilar conveyed to reporters on Monday.
He said, “Maybe in hindsight we were not strict enough on Bahamians going in and out of the country.”
The minister added, “From the evidence that I have right now in front of me, I have no known cases by foreign visitors coming into the country. They were all following the protocols, getting the COVID-19 tests, we were screening them before they came. So, I think that was working well.”
While health officials have not provided travel details for a majority of the cases, the prime minister said in a national address on Sunday, “…Surveillance teams have traced many of the cases to Bahamians returning to The Bahamas.”
Instead of shifting the policy and requiring everyone to get tested prior to coming in and strengthening screening protocols, his response has been to close the country’s borders to commercial flights and sea vessels from everywhere except Canada, the United Kingdom and Europe.
This means that the trickle of tourists that has started to come in since July 1 will likely dry back up. Between July 1 and July 19, roughly 6,000 visitors had passed through Lynden Pindling International Airport, according to officials.
The United States, where COVID-19 is surging, accounts for 80 percent of The Bahamas’ tourism market. Canada accounts for 11 percent, the United Kingdom six percent and other countries make up the remaining percentage, according to tourism officials.
While private international fights and charters for Bahamians, residents and visitors will still be permitted, the message that has been carried by international media is that The Bahamas has closed its borders to American citizens as of today.
What the competent authority has in fact done is leave the borders open to those who can afford to travel on private planes, yachts and other seacraft. Those are primarily wealthy people.
Director General of Tourism Joy Jibrilu has been trying to get the message out to international journalists that this is not a total ban on travel from the United States.
She suggested there is wisdom in allowing visitors to come in on private planes and sea vessels.
“Our private aviation, boaters, yachters, the numbers are smaller and when they come in there is a much better handle on those numbers. You know exactly where they are going for the most part and their contribution to the economy in terms of their spend, the reality is their spend is a lot higher,” Jibrilu told National Review.
The Bahamas welcomed more than seven million tourists last year. Stopover visitors accounted for 1.78 million of that total, according to Ministry of Tourism data. Cruise visitors accounted for the rest.
While stopover visitors spent an average of $1,974, cruise visitors spent $80 on average.
The new restrictions make it easier for the rich to come to The Bahamas. But the rich also get COVID-19, a fact Jibrilu acknowledged.
“I think from a tourism perspective, we had to have faith in the processes that Ministry of Health put in place and so their creation of that health visa platform, to be honest it was impressive… Anybody could have COVID; we’ve seen that, including the rich, but the evidence so far for whatever reason, seems to suggest that that vehicle of the travel health visa and the COVID-19 negative test seem to have been doing what you wanted it to do in stopping people before they enter,” Jibrilu said.
“So the question is, how did Bahamians get through? There were exceptions put in place for Bahamians because you had to allow Bahamians to come home.
“And so, that was those who traveled and only stayed for 72 hours. They were allowed to come home, had to quarantine, etc. I can’t speak to whether those processes were followed as they should have been, but I think that is where there would have been a gap in what we can observe and what I am advised by the health officials.”
The director general said the decision to close the borders to commercial traffic will allow officials additional time to get the online platform for screening visitors and other protocols fine-tuned so that when the country is fully opened with Baha Mar and Atlantis, the process is seamless.
While the prime minister has made the decision to close the border — a decision he is empowered to make as the sole competent authority — others in the region who also depend heavily on tourism from the United States have held off on any similar decision.
Jamaica recorded 75 COVID-19 cases between June 21 and July 8 (a 17-day period), with the majority being imported from the United States, the Jamaica Gleaner reported on Monday.
This compares to the 70 cases The Bahamas reported over a 12-day period.
More recently, Jamaica (with a population of 2.9 million) saw 35 cases between Sunday and Monday.
The Bahamas (with a population of just under 400,000) recorded 36 in that period.
In the Monday Gleaner article, Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett cautioned that a ban on travelers from the United States in a bid to contain COVID-19 would deliver a death blow to Jamaica’s hospitality industry.
Minister of Health and Wellness Dr. Christopher Tufton was quoted as saying there could be no lockout of US flights until Cabinet had mulled over that decision. (In our case, the competent authority is the sole decision maker on these matters.)
“Right now, we have the system in place to do surveillance and screening, but certainly, with opening up does come risks, and those risks are real, and some of those risks are totally out of our control,” Tufton said.
As of July 15, all non-business travelers to Jamaica 12 and over from Arizona, Florida, New York and Texas are required to upload a negative COVID-19 PCR test result from an accredited lab. The test sample date must be within 10 days of the arrival date.
All travelers must have a travel authorization from Jamaica’s government.
After a travel screening, high-risk travelers must be tested at the airport upon arrival or a designated facility. They are required to await test results under quarantine. Test results are available within 48 hours.
The Bahamas, meanwhile, will leave testing requirements in place for those coming on private planes and boats. They must take a COVID-19 test in advance and get a travel visa from Bahamian authorities through online application.
The prime minister has given no indication how long the borders will likely be closed to the vast majority of travelers who would ordinarily opt to come to The Bahamas.
Although he and D’Aguilar have blamed the spike in COVID-19 cases on Bahamians traveling, we imagine he is watching how the pandemic plays out in the United States before deciding when to allow commercial travel to resume.
The decision to close means that more life is squeezed out of an already devastated economy. The Sandals property on Exuma is shuttering again as a result of the border closure.
More employers are buckling under the pressure of COVID-19 and the financial fallout that has ensued.
Yesterday, John Bull, one of the country’s largest retailers, announced that due to the economic fallout, which has been “greater than we could have ever imagined”, it is cutting staff by 15 percent.
If the two-week lockdown of Grand Bahama announced by Minnis yesterday is successful in driving down COVID-19 cases, we imagine the prime minister would again consider reopening that island’s borders and the country’s borders.
The decisions on reopening and how to balance risks against the need to get the economy going are not easy ones.
The cooperation of Bahamians after the initial restrictions put in place to fight COVID-19 resulted in The Bahamas being successful in containing community spread of COVID-19.
The country cannot stay closed until a vaccine is available.
As opposition leader Philip Brave Davis observed yesterday, “The ability to both have borders open while still keeping the virus contained is imperative for Bahamians whose jobs are linked to tourism, for our reputation as a safe destination and for our ability to have visitors continue to arrive in the coming months before a vaccine is available.”
He rightly observed, “The risks we were taking by opening at a time of rapidly rising case counts in the United States, and especially Florida, were not just foreseeable, but foreseen, by me and by many others as well. It was the government’s job to take every precaution possible to reduce those risks.
“But the government’s policies were full of loopholes and they simply were not ready at the borders.”
The government will need to put in place tighter border controls, for Bahamians, residents and visitors, and we must all continue to take seriously the need to remain on alert as we move around.
We are clearly a long way off in seeing an end to these difficult and trying times.
The fear we have is the worst of it might still be ahead of us.