The Bahamas has reversed course on closing its border to U.S. travelers over surging coronavirus infections in both nations.
Less than a week after Prime Minister Hubert Minnis announced the closure of the tourism-dependent nation's borders to commercial air and sea visitors from the United States, the attorney general said Friday all international visitors are now welcome.
But visitors should be prepared to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival — at their own expense — in a government facility and take a real time polymerase chain reaction COVID-19 laboratory test at the end of isolation.
The news of the reversal was first broken by the Nassau Guardian in a Friday editorial, "New orders, new questions." The newspaper's reporters noticed Wednesday that an item tabled in Parliament on visitors was vastly different from the travel ban Minnis announced Sunday. During a national address, Minnis told Bahamians that a surging number of coronavirus infections since the country fully reopened its borders on July 1 demanded "decisive action, if we are to avoid being overrun and defeated by this virus."
"We cannot allow our hospitals to be overrun. Many priorities must be balanced, be they health, social and economic," Minnis said.
Hours after Friday's Nassau Guardian editorial, Attorney General Carl Bethel confirmed the change in a press statement that didn't offer a reason for the reversal.
"The provisions governing the admission of foreign visitors to The Bahamas were changed in order to create a uniform standard of treatment for all Visitors to The Bahamas during this Pandemic Emergency," the statement said. "The creation of a uniform framework means that there is no longer any need to create any list of countries from which The Bahamas would accept commercial flights; which list thereby excluded other countries."
The new emergency orders do not say what the entry requirements are for visitors on pleasure craft or private or chartered aircraft, which under the travel ban were allowed to still visit as long as they had proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Tourists from Canada, Europe and the United Kingdom on commercial flights were also still allowed.
Laura Masvidal, a spokeswoman with American Airlines, said the U.S.-based carrier, which has been serving the Bahamas for more than 30 years, suspended service to Nassau, Georgetown and Eleuthera on Wednesday per the government's new directive.
"Our flights to the Bahamas are scheduled to resume in September," she said. Despite the new orders, Masvidal said, "We continue with our plan to resume our flights in September."
With the U.S. accounting for the majority of visitors to the Bahamas, the country has faced a public relations dilemma following Sunday's announcement that it would ban U.S. commercial travelers until further notice.
But while the decision made headlines, it was not novel. The Dutch territories of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao were among the first to say Americans won't be welcomed right away when they reopened the country July 1. St. Maarten, which shares an island with the French territory of St. Martin, also took a last-minute decision to postpone flights from the U.S. for two weeks, citing the rise in coronavirus infections.
Closer to home, Canada, which has flattened its epidemiological curve, according to the Pan American Health Organization, still has its borders with the U.S. closed until at least August due to the spike in COVID-19 in the U.S. In May, the U.S. also suspended entry into the U.S. of any foreign nationals who were present in Brazil during the 14-day period preceding their arrival.
After cases this week spiked on the island of Grand Bahama, Minnis announced a two-week lockdown of the island, including of its domestic and international borders. Meanwhile, the new orders, while reintroducing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors and locals, no longer call for COVID-19 PCR testing prior to arrival.
On Friday, the Bahamas recorded 42 new coronavirus cases, a day after recording its largest single-day spike of 55. The country's new national total is 316 cases. As a result of the surge, Minnis imposed a new nationwide weekend lockdown as of 10 p.m. He also instituted a new 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for the country as of Monday.
The reopening of borders has posed huge challenges for countries in the region, especially those in the Caribbean, which are dependent on tourism. In the face of rising cases at home and now in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S., they have had to reverse course on COVID-19 testing requirements, or re-implement shutdowns.
Antigua and Barbuda, for example, recently changed its protocol after U.S. visitors, who were told they had tested positive for COVID-19, objected to being placed in quarantine and threatened to sue the government before taking return flights back to the U.S.
This week, the Dominican Republic, which does not require any proof of a negative COVID-19 test, reinstituted a state of emergency after the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases hit more than 50,000. The new order, however, does not affect the country's airspace, which remains open for tourists.
Also, this week, the Turks and Caicos reopened its borders despite seeing a 44% jump in cases after months of no active infections.
The islands require visitors to get tested and receive their test results within five days of their arrival. A press statement from the health ministry on Friday about a visitor testing positive upon arrival after breaching protocol shows, however, how the system is not foolproof.
"An investigation is ongoing into how this breach occurred to prevent further occurrences," the ministry said, adding that the public health team has started contact tracing and individuals arriving on American Airlines Flight 1279 on July 22 are advised to self-monitor for symptoms or signs of COVID-19 for the next 14 days.
Public health experts with the Pan American Health Organization have warned that testing for nonessential travel could provide a false sense of security. Someone can still contract the virus while waiting for test results, or show up negative on a test when in fact they are positive, depending on when they took the test.
In its editorial, the Nassau Guardian noted that in the 116 days between March 15 and July 9, New Providence, where the capital of Nassau is located, recorded 82 cases. In the 13 days between July 10 and July 23, the island has recorded close to half of the number.
The editorial also asks, since the requirements under the new orders are markedly different from those previously announced, why the nation wasn't advised "of the new guidelines when tabling the orders in Parliament this week."
"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 paper said.