New orders, new questions

The competent authority, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis’ latest emergency orders on international travel for visitors now makes it possible for travelers from all countries to enter the country, including commercial air travelers from the United States, subjecting all visitors to mandatory 14-day government quarantine.

The new and understated orders were issued just days after Minnis’ announcement on Sunday that commercial air and sea travel to The Bahamas would be restricted for all countries except Canada, the United Kingdom and countries within the European Union.

The restrictions he foreshadowed were couched as necessary to address the country’s increase in COVID-19 cases, and sent the Ministry of Tourism scrambling to address fallout from the impact of US media reporting on the country’s new border policies.

Minnis also announced that Bahamians and legal residents returning from overseas by air or sea must present a negative COVID-19 PCR test result no more than 10 days old and a valid health visa.

He advised that those without a negative PCR result would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days via the Hubbcat monitoring application, and submit to a COVID-19 test at their expense, at the end of the quarantine period.

Clause 26 of the Emergency Powers (COVID-19 Pandemic)(No. 2) Order issued Wednesday, states that visitors arriving on “an international commercial air travel” must, at their own expense, submit to quarantine at a government facility for 14 days and undergo an RT-PCR COVID-19 molecular diagnostic test at the end of the 14-day period, also at the visitor’s expense.

Clause 26(2) empowers the competent authority to exempt diplomatic personnel and other visitors from mandatory quarantine.

And clause 25 states that Bahamians and legal residents will be mandatorily quarantined at a government facility at their own expense upon arrival, and must submit to a COVID-19 test at the end of the quarantine period, also at their expense.

These individuals can opt for a COVID-19 test before the 14-day period and if negative, would be permitted to go into monitored self-quarantine.

Notably, the new emergency orders contain no stipulations on the entry policy for passengers on pleasure crafts or private or chartered aircraft.

Additionally, the new orders no longer call for COVID-19 PCR testing prior to arrival for visitors, Bahamians or legal residents, which is a requirement for the health visa that is also no longer mandated under the new orders.

Since the requirements under his new orders are markedly different from those previously announced to the nation by the competent authority, we question why he did not advise the nation of the new guidelines when tabling the orders in Parliament this week.

The apparent walk-back also raises questions on who or what informed Minnis in his foreshadowing of new travel restrictions with substantial implications for the country’s tourism product and brand, considering that just three days later, he issued orders manifestly different from what he announced.

A mandatory government quarantine of 14 days for all visitors at their expense is tantamount to grinding the country’s tourism industry to a halt, and there is no indication that tourism officials were anticipating this new border policy.

The new orders mandating testing after the end of the quarantine period for visitors and locals suggest that The Bahamas will now carry the responsibility of ensuring that testing resources for all travelers are available in country, though neither Minnis nor the new Minister of Health Renward Wells has spoken to the government’s ability to facilitate this.

Meantime, former Health Minister Dr. Duane Sands stressed to parliamentarians yesterday that capacity must be built within the public healthcare system to do RT-PCR testing, citing this as “critical to providing an adequate level of care”.

As nationwide COVID-19 numbers soar and cases emerge on islands previously deemed free of the virus, New Providence should take note that its rate of new confirmed cases during the current wave is nearly twice the daily average rate seen during the initial wave, whose first case was announced on March 15.

In the 116 days between March 15 and July 9, New Providence recorded 82 cases; and in the 13 days between July 10 and July 23, the island has recorded close to half of the number charted over the previous period.

As to the country’s border policies key to mitigating the importation of COVID-19, the competent authority once again has a lot of explaining to do.

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