By Jacqueline Charles and 

Bianca Padró 

Targeting Florida’s surging coronavirus infections as a public health threat, two Caribbean destinations joined the Bahamas Tuesday in changing their entry requirement for tourists traveling from the state — and elsewhere in the United States.

Puerto Rico announced Tuesday that all incoming passengers will now be required to provide a negative molecular COVID-19 test performed in the 72 hours prior to arrival when the U.S. territory reopens to external travel on July 15.

Jamaica, which had given travelers a choice between getting tested prior to departure or upon arrival at either of the country’s two international airports, quietly changed its protocol Monday night. As of July 10, travelers from Florida, New York, Arizona, Texas and other high-risk places will be required to take a molecular COVID-19 test seven days before arriving in Jamaica, the country’s tourism minister, Edmund Bartlett, confirmed to the Miami Herald. 

The new policies, which are a reversal of more lax health protocols in order to stem a surge in COVID-19 cases, come as a new group of Caribbean nations reopens to commercial air travel this week and concerns mount over the growing number of infections in a number of U.S. states. 

On Tuesday, Florida’s Department of Health confirmed an additional 6,093 cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s confirmed cases to 152,434. The state has seen a five-fold increase in infections in two weeks and posted a record increase of more than 9,500 cases on Saturday. 

“If you want to go to Puerto Rico, you have to go with a negative COVID-19 test,” the island’s governor, Wanda Vázquez, said during a press conference announcing the changes. 

Vázquez pleaded with residents on Tuesday to learn from the mistakes of states like Florida.

“In all of those states [with a spike in infections] the majority of them, they did not have as a mandatory measure the use of face masks. That is to say, face masks are indispensable for us to be able to control COVID infections,” Vázquez said.

The island nation of Antigua and Barbudawas barely three weeks into its early June tourism reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic when 39 visitors tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival and American tourists started flouting the rules.

After health officials informed infected tourists they needed to be placed under a 14-day mandatory quarantine, the visitors threatened to sue and some immediately booked return flights back to the United States.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne, relaying the story over the weekend as he discussed the challenges posed by the new tourism health protocol requiring everyone to be tested upon arrival for the novel coronavirus, said Antigua would be switching course — again. 

Rather than having a six-inch swab inserted into their noses upon arrival at V.C. Bird International Airport, tourists will now be required to be tested within 48 hours before their arrival in the eastern Caribbean twin island.

“Pretesting should now be a prerequisite for travel, now that COVID tests are more readily available,” Browne told the Herald. “It also averts problems of individuals who are infected getting stuck abroad, and the challenge arising there from.” 

Antigua’s reversal on testing for COVID-19, along with that of the BahamasHaitiand now Puerto Rico and Jamaica, highlights the challenges facing Caribbean countries and territories as they continue to slowly welcome visitors again and try to balance livelihoods with lives.

Grenada, another eastern Caribbean island showing no active cases after registering 23 infections and no deaths, postponed a planned Tuesday reopening, its prime minister saying in a national address that commercial airlines will not agree to pretesting, which is required under the country’s protocol. 

“Commercial airlines have thus far not agreed to make it mandatory for passengers to test prior to travel and this is contrary to Grenada’s protocols,” Prime Minister Keith Mitchell said. 

Markus Ruediger, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, said the airline trade organization is unaware of any airlines refusing pre-travel testing compliance and have recommended to nations that testing be done before departure to avoid a situation like what happened in Antigua.

“Governments need to correctly advise what the requirements are, how these need to be documented, so then the airlines can ensure that passengers comply with all the required entry regulations,” he said, adding that governments also need to advise the association of the requirements so it can update its database, which airlines check.

Ruediger said that with countries around the globe beginning to reopen closed borders, the group is doing about 200 updates a day just on COVID-19 entry requirements. 

“Today the European Union has announced they will allow citizens of up to 15 countries back into the European Union. That means an update for all of the 27 EU member states that need to be put in,” he said. 

Meanwhile, after more than three months of lockdowns and closed borders, more Caribbean countries are following in the steps of Jamaica and opening their borders this week.

On Tuesday, Haiti reopened both of its international airports and porous land border with the Dominican Republic, despite reporting 5,933 cases of COVID-19 and 105 deaths. Initially, the country said a test would not be necessary, reversing a March decision when it became the first country in the Caribbean to require passengers to show proof they they are COVID-free.

During a press visit at the airport Tuesday, officials confirmed that they will now require testing but did not say when it will be enforced or within what window results must be provided. All of the U.S. carriers that service Haiti fly from either New York or Florida.

The neighboring Dominican Republic, which leads the region with 31,816 infections, doesn’t appear to be requiring tests when it reopens its borders on Wednesday. Officials did not respond to several emails from the Herald about their reopening protocol.

Also reopening Wednesday to commercial flight operations are the Bahamas, Bermuda and St. Maarten/St. Martin. But while the Dutch island of St. Maarten will welcome tourists from Europe and some Caribbean destinations, it announced late Tuesday that it has decided to postpone flights from the U.S. for two weeks, citing the rise in coronavirus infections.

St Maarten Tourism Minister Ludmila de Weever said the decision to delay a return of U.S. tourists was “a very hard decision for the economy of the island but… a very easy decision for protecting the health of the island.”

“Even though we have very strict protocols for all passengers coming to the island; all passengers are required to do a PCR test in advance, they have to receive the results within 72 hours prior to boarding, they have to upload the questionnaire to…and proceed to upload the negative result there,” the government wanted time to assess what’s happening in the U.S. and its potential impact, she said.

The islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao also won’t be welcoming back American tourists right away when they too resume commercial operations Wednesday. Continue reading

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