Had the government placed an embargo on Bahamians traveling abroad, hotels in The Bahamas would be open and doing well, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said yesterday, adding that future governments may be forced to make “unconstitutional decisions” for the advancement of the country.
As he led debate on a resolution to extend the state of emergency and emergency orders to September 30, Minnis pointed to the state of The Bahamas’ tourism industry and the blow it suffered because of COVID-19.
“…Had we made a firm decision to ensure and stop and prevent Bahamians from traveling, we would have been in a better position,” he said.
“But, to make such a decision would have been considered unconstitutional. I would have been accused or the government would have been accused of being the most dictatorial government.
“We would have been accused and I would have been accused of an abuse of power. But power is only abused when used unnecessarily, but when it is used for the correct purpose, it is not abused.
“We, as government, we refused, though we thought about it, we refused to make that decision, to place a travel embargo on Bahamians and allow others to come in.
“What would have happened, had we done that, the opposition, the people, the media, etc, would have lambasted us for doing that because they would not have known what the possible outcome would have been.
“We would have been a successful nation, but we would have been a destroyed grouping.
“We were afraid to make that decision.
“We were already being threatened by members of the opposition to be taken to court on constitutional violations. We made the decision to not make an unconstitutional decision though we would have been better off. As a result of the decision that we made, allowing everybody to travel, we’re seeing the results today.”
He continued, “What that demonstrates, Mr. Speaker, governments will be placed in situations where at some point in time they would have to make what they call discriminatory or unconstitutional decisions against their people in the interest of the advancement of their nation.
“But, Mr. Speaker, we could not. The statistics are verifying that if we did, RIU and other hotels would have been opened and doing well.”
The Bahamas fully reopened its borders on July 1 after closing them in late March because of the spread of COVID-19. However, eight days later, and after weeks of no COVID-19 cases, The Bahamas saw a surge in new cases.
The Bahamas is experiencing a second wave of the virus.
The country recorded 55 cases yesterday — the highest ever — bringing the total case count to 274. One hundred and seventy of those cases were recorded in just over two weeks, more than the total number recorded in a four-month period.
The prime minister on Sunday announced the closure of the borders to all commercial craft except from Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union and has placed Grand Bahama on a two-week lockdown.
The prime minister and the minister of tourism have blamed the surge on Bahamians traveling abroad and returning home, though no travel details were provided by health officials for the vast majority of the 170 new cases.
Shortly after Minnis spoke, Tall Pines MP Don Saunders, the deputy speaker, stood on a point of clarification.
“Mr. Prime Minister, you pointed to the government, [that it] may make — I’m just trying to get further clarification before it’s seconded — that the government may have to make an unconstitutional move. I just want it to be clarified.”
Minnis rose to his feet, shaking his head and repeating, “No.”
Saunders, who was being heckled by government MPs, said he was only seeking clarification.
Minnis cut him off, saying: “Do not go on the record and say that I said the government may make or will make unconstitutional decisions.
“I said: Had an unconstitutional decision been made, we would not have been in this place today. But there would have been such great backlash because we would have gone against the law.
“What I also said: In years…to come, governments may be placed in a situation where they may have to decide to make a decision which would be considered unconstitutional. However, it would save the country. And governments may be placed in such situation.”
Saunders responded, “Thanks for clearing that up because that’s not how it came across to me.”
St. Anne’s MP Brent Symonette then stood and asked, “Is there anything in the current emergency powers, pandemic orders, that were laid, unconstitutional?”
A government member, who was seated, responded, “No.”
Symonette said, “So, therefore, the member said he is comfortable that the discrimination between Bahamian and resident and foreign visitors is perfectly okay.”
Minnis said he would have to be advised by the attorney general on the matter.
“But nobody constitutionally would make an unconstitutional decision,” Minnis said. “It would be very difficult.”
As noted, the borders were reopened to travelers on July 1, even as cases in the US were surging and Florida was identified as a hotspot.
The reopening was under the condition that tourists test negative for COVID-19 within 10 days of visiting. However, Bahamians who were traveling outside the country for less than 72 hours were not required to present a negative test for reentry.
Even as cases continued to spike in the United States, Bahamasair, a state-owned airline, ran a promotion for Bahamians traveling from New Providence, Grand Bahama and Abaco to Florida.
As cases climbed, criticism mounted over the government’s decision to reopen the borders.
Minnis, however, yesterday insisted that the issue has been Bahamians traveling to hotspots.
He said Bahamians exhibited “a lack of discipline once the borders were open”.
Health officials have not yet provided any travel details for the vast majority of the 170 cases reported since July 8.