Emergency order confusion

Nothing hampers public health mitigation strategies like public confusion.

The Bahamas has had the benefit of months of planning for the eventuality of confirmed COVID-19 cases on our shores, and with that window of opportunity came time to structure best practices for the issuance and execution of emergency orders so as to minimize public confusion and challenges with enforcement.

Against this backdrop, it is difficult for us to fathom why Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis chose to wait until the end of business day yesterday to advise hundreds of businesses and public transportation providers throughout the country that yesterday was to be their last day of operations for the next 11 days.

The government’s COVID-19 Emergency Powers Order No. 1 which comes into effect 9 a.m. today and expires March 31 at 9 a.m., grants exemptions for select operations, but Minnis’ announcement of the order left businesses and employees across the country confused as to what is to happen and how they are to proceed.

Certainly government knew it wished to issue this type of order, so we question the rationale behind giving businesses, employees and public transportation providers no notice of an ordered cessation of operations, and no exigent explanations of how its emergency order is to be applied to different categories of businesses.

Section 8 of the order states that permanent secretaries shall decide how government offices will function during the period and with how much staff — but Minnis did not advise on whether these decisions had been made ahead of his announcement.

He also did not indicate which government services will remain open to the public and at what capacity.

Hotels shall remain open during the period, but we question the rationale of the administration to leave unchanged its thermal screening and quarantine policy for visitors and Bahamians traveling from the United States and Canada where documented community spread of COVID-19 exists, and where shelter-in-place orders are in effect.

Minnis noted that fewer visitors will be traveling to The Bahamas as a result of the pandemic’s impact on U.S. commercial air travel.

But he did not indicate what risk-based assessments have been made for hotel workers who will not be able to practice social distancing from guests, and who in numerous cases likely suffer from the kinds of chronic non-communicable diseases that would put them at risk for COVID-19 complications.

Public bus transportation is also prohibited under the order, which raises questions of how employees and residents who rely on public bus transport are to adjust.

The order imposes a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew order effective today.

Curfews are difficult to enforce, and the government did the Royal Bahamas Police Force no favors by leaving many unanswered questions for the public about how a curfew on all islands of The Bahamas is to be adhered to.

In the context of the need for social distancing, we question the necessity of a curfew with punitive sanctions of a hefty fine and imprisonment if all exempted businesses must close by 7:30 p.m. during the order period, and large public gatherings and dine-in services at restaurants are prohibited.

Minnis stressed that those who are not in their homes during the curfew period “will be arrested”, but where are groups of prisoners supposed to be housed if the purpose of this order is to maintain social distancing?

Neither the commissioner of police nor his designee was present at the prime minister’s press conference to give insight on how officers will manage and enforce the mandated curfew, and on what guidance officers have on the use of discretion for what can be justifiable reasons for persons being away from their homes during the curfew period.

It is important that the purpose of public health mitigation against a rapid spread of COVID-19 is not lost in the desire to enforce emergency orders or in the zeal to issue the same.

And it is equally important for government to recognize that panic proliferates where confusion is rife.

Parliament’s Wednesday sitting would have been the most opportune time for the prime minister to declare his lockdown order starting today, so as to minimize what ensued yesterday — widespread confusion about what the government intends to have happen via its emergency order.

Bahamians by and large are willing to cooperate to fight COVID-19, but government should accept that its marching orders for this battle must be clear and well-timed to maximize benefits and minimize collateral damage.

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