After announcing that foreign visitors and Bahamians returning home would not need to obtain a negative COVID-19 test when the country reopens on July 1 to international commercial flights, Tourism and Aviation Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar told Parliament Wednesday that a negative test would now be required.
Last week Dr. Duane Sands, the former health minister who resigned amid the pandemic after a public quarrel with the prime minister, warned fellow lawmakers the country was taking chances by not expanding testing for the disease caused by the coronavirus. The country has registered 104 positive cases, of whom 72 have recovered and 11 have died.
“There has been much concern expressed about the reopening of the country to foreign visitors — allowing them and Bahamians returning home, after 1 July, to enter the country without, I repeat without, some form of testing to determine their COVID-19 status,” D’Aguilar said. “The Bahamas, which now requires a COVID 19 test to enter the country up to July 1, will also require a COVID-19 after July 1.”
D’Aguilar said the archipelago, which partially reopened Monday to returning nationals, private charters and pleasure crafts, is in a tough spot.
On the one hand, he said, the Bahamas needs foreign visitors, of which U.S. travelers account for 82 percent, to return to restart the economy. On the other hand, there are legitimate health concerns that the very people the Bahamas needs to restart the tourism sector could end up causing a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“With the reopening of businesses in all 50 states and the protests that have been taking place in many of the major cities throughout the U.S., most states are now reporting spikes in the number of positive results from COVID 19 tests,” D’Aguilar said. “Given the spike in the number of positive COVID-19 tests in the United States and the uncertainty surrounding just how many cases will require hospitalization, the government of the Bahamas has decided to maintain the current status quo until further notice.”
Last month, the Bahamas joined Haiti in requiring travelers to present a negative real time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction diagnostic test from an accredited lab to gain entry. St. Lucia soon announced the same testing requirement ahead of its June 4 reopening to U.S. travelers only, and Bermuda has implemented the same testing requirement. Bermuda’s tourism ministry says visitors will need to present a negative PCR COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of their arrival into the British territory as well as proof of medical insurance.
Jamaica, which reopened its airports on Monday, is requiring tourists and returning nationals to undergo some kind of quarantine and risk-based PCR COVID-19 testing at the airport or a designated government facility based on the countries they are traveling from, exposure to COVID-19 and other risk factors. The country is also limiting tourists’ movement to a “COVID-19 Resilient Corridor” in order to manage and contact trace any infections among workers or visitors.
The issue of testing has become both a sensitive and complicated one as countries in the Caribbean seek to relaunch their tourism sectors and invite travelers back after more than three months of shuttered hotels, closed airports and 24-hour-a-day lockdowns to control the transmission of the virus.
But the so-called “virus-free” certificates, which are also known as immunity passports, remain controversial. The World Health Organization and Pan American Health Organization have both expressed discomfort with the travel requirement as doctors and scientists stress they still lack a lot of information about the coronavirus and immunity after one becomes infected.
Scientists also note that testing is not foolproof, can present a false sense of security and, depending on the test administered, there is a high percentage of false negatives.
Further complicating the matter is that airlines do not want to police the issue among passengers. American Airlines, which is requiring passengers to wear masks, told the Miami Herald earlier this month that St. Lucia’s testing requirement was the reason it delayed its return to the eastern Caribbean island until July 7. And after nearby Antigua and Barbuda announced that airlines would be required to administer a rapid test to their passengers before boarding, it was forced to reverse itself and now tests passengers upon arrival if they do not have proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.
Earlier this month, Aruba Tourism Authority Chief Executive Officer Ronella Tjin Asjoe-Croes said the Dutch territory would require visitors to fill out a new travel document online before arrival and, like Antigua, would screen visitors using rapid testing once they arrive at the airport.
In announcing the reopening of the country’s borders to international travelers on July 1, the government did not make any official announcement about whether tests would be required. However, it did say it will be welcoming inbound travel for visitors from all the countries of the Caribbean, “with the exception of Dominican Republic and Haiti.”
The island of Hispaniola, which Haiti and the Dominican Republic share, is currently the epicenter of COVID-19 infections in the Caribbean, with 24,105 confirmed cases in the Dominican Republic and 4,547 cases in Haiti.
During his address to the Bahamian Parliament, D’Aguilar said he and others have been reading the social media postings and newspaper reports about the climbing cases in Florida, Texas and Georgia, and watching the unfolding anti-racism protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
“The Government faces a dilemma to which there is no easy decision. Open up and face a potential spike in COVID-19 cases and possible deaths or stay closed and face continued economic hardship,” he said. “When we made our initial decision, evidence supported the opening of the tourism sector without the test. We had the full support of the tourism sector for this decision. But things have changed.
“The situation has become unclear and ever changing, so a prudent government must reassess and readjust all decisions related to this COVID-19 virus as the situation evolves on the ground. And that is what we are doing here today.”