The Caribbean starts to reopen. Along with swimsuits and face masks, COVID test required

©Miami Herald

After more than two months of watching their tourism-dependent economies get decimated by the coronavirus amid airport, beach and hotel closures, Caribbean nations are starting to reopen their borders to tourists again.

But the experience won’t look anything like the one visitors may have had six months ago. Traveling during the global COVID-19 pandemic will now mean health and safety protocols for hoteliers and tour operators and uncertainty for airlines as island governments demand face masks, temperature checks and COVID-19 testing for passengers — some even before boarding.

“There is an expectation that if you are staying in the territory and you feel you have some of the known symptoms for the coronavirus, you report immediately to the government powers that be and then begin self-quarantine,” said Joseph Boschulte, commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

On Monday, the U.S. territory, which never officially closed its airports, relaunched its tourism brand by inviting travelers to once more come visit. As the pandemic hit in March, USVI Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. closed the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John to all visitors and banned hotels, guesthouses and bed-and-breakfasts from accepting new guests.

Now the islands are trying to lure them back and hoping temperature screenings at the airport and mandatory face masks and social distancing, along with the health and safety protocols for businesses, will be enough.

“Eventually, you have to make some steps to try and stimulate your economy. What you do to prepare is key and we are putting the necessary mitigation in place,” Boschulte said. “The governor has said it very clearly, ‘If we see a sharp spike, we’ll shut back down.’ ”

While the virus has mostly been contained in the English-speaking Caribbean, reopening airports and cruise ports remain a thorny matter as countries try to figure out how to balance lives with livelihoods. The region is the world’s most dependent on tourism, and, after months of closed airports, a number of carriers have announced the resumption of some service for the summer pending the lifting of restrictions on border closures.

On Tuesday, the director of the Pan American Health Organization, Dr. Carissa Etienne, cautioned nations that opening up too quickly risks “a resurgence of COVID-19 that could erase the advantage gained over the past few months.”

To mitigate against a surge, a number of Caribbean countries are turning to testing.

Already a requirement for travelers to Haiti and the Bahamas, which will begin allowing boaters and private-plane charters on June 15 and international commercial flights on July 1, a negative COVID-19 real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction test is also being required in St. Lucia.

The eastern Caribbean island will reopen its airport on Thursday, restricting visitors to those from the United States for now, and requiring “a certified” negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours of boarding.

Antigua and Barbuda, also reopening on Thursday, had hoped to have the airlines administer a rapid test to passengers before boarding, but now says its health officials will do so upon arrival, although everyone will need to fill out a health form.

Whether the new protocols will be enough to lure tourists back remains to be seen as industry officials concede that safety will be a top priority for consumers and the region should expect to see a different kind of visitor.

“The ability for Caribbean countries to remain closed indefinitely is not realistic,” said Anton Edmunds, St. Lucia’s ambassador to the United States. “It’s beyond tourists. It’s everything else that comes with travel. It’s everybody who comes in and out of a country; I am dealing with nationals, folks in the diaspora who want to go home for funerals.”

Last month, the Caribbean Community signaled the desire to reopen the region’s borders to intra-regional travel among its mostly English-speaking 15 member states. But while St. Lucia and Antigua have moved ahead and Jamaica has announced a June 15 reopening for international travelers, many countries are choosing to move more slowly.

The issue, say regional watchers, is that once airports resume operations, a lot of stranded nationals will head home, straining countries’ quarantine capacities. In recent weeks, Jamaica, Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines all reported new COVID-19 infections from repatriated cruise ship workers despite their being stranded on boats for two months.

“Where possible, we are encouraging testing along with a range of other core health safety protocols, which destinations and companies are putting in place,” Frank Comito, the chief executive officer of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, said Tuesday during a webinar on the outlook for Caribbean tourism.

Comito acknowledged that the challenge with testing has been getting the volume of approved PCR tests available, the costs and the time it takes for securing results. Also, the airlines do not want to be responsible for policing such requirements.

In March, when Haiti became the first Caribbean nation to make a negative COVID-19 test a requirement to travel there, Jetblue Airways suspended all service to the country. The airline did not respond to questions about how it plans to proceed given that other markets are now also requiring the same or plan to.

Laura Masvidal, a spokeswoman with American Airlines, said St. Lucia’s negative COVID-19 test requirement is the reason why the airlines have delayed returning to the island until July 7. The airlines, she said, “aren’t responsible for the enforcement.”

American Airlines, however, will require all of its passengers to wear face coverings while onboard and, in the case of Antigua travelers, it will hand out health forms at the boarding gate. Antigua’s Port Health will collect the forms after customers deplane.

“In Antigua passengers can bring their own COVID-19 certificate, take a rapid test upon arrival or they can also arrive without a test as long as they remain exclusively in their hotel during their stay,” Masvidal said.

Antigua Prime Minister Gaston Brown said the bottom line is that countries will have to learn to live with COVID-19. Visiting the eastern Caribbean island will not only mean staying at a hotel but being subjected to a rapid COVID test.

“The hotels have been transformed into bio-secured properties with strict health protocols to prevent the individuals from contracting and transmitting COVID,” he said.

Visitors who test positive will be isolated and treated at an infectious disease control center the twin-island nation has fully equipped with ventilators and other medical equipment to treat patients who get critically ill from COVID-19. “We believe that with the continued vigilance and personal responsibility of our people, that we will continue to be successful in containing the disease,” Brown said.

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©2020 Miami Herald