May 20, 2024

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Caribbean countries and COVID-19 during Christmas a mixed bag

Days after Puerto Rico surpassed more than 1,000 coronavirus deaths, Gov. Wanda Vázquez, citing the increased cases and hospitalizations on the island, delivered some sobering news to those looking forward to celebrating Christmas: This year’s festivities in the sun-swept territory will look like no other previous celebrations.

The U.S. territory, which had already taken the extreme measure of activating the National Guard to help enforce a COVID-19 curfew, would be tightening restrictions during the holiday, Vázquez announced. This includes an earlier curfew, no alcohol sold on weekends and weeknights, and a 24-hour lockdown on Sundays. Boat marinas remain closed and beaches continue to be open only for exercise.

Rather than promote tourism from abroad, local tourism officials are asked to promote “internal tourism” within health and safety guidelines.

“The best Christmas gift you can give yourself is not to get infected,” Vázquez said during a Dec. 3 press conference where she announced the measures, running from Dec. 7 to Jan. 7. “Let’s all do our part … so next Christmas we can celebrate with all of our loved ones, and they don’t fall victim to COVID-19.”

Puerto Rico’s cautious approach into the holidays amid an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases reflects the reality facing about 20 Caribbean territories and countries that have found themselves under a Level 4 warning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency’s highest travel advisory, it advises Americans that they should not travel and that doing so “may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19.” While some nations have objected to the CDC label, it comes during what is traditionally high season for Caribbean travel and while some U.S. airlines have bolstered flights to popular island destinations just as the U.S. and other countries in the hemisphere see the number of COVID-19 cases climb.

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A beach in Puerto Rico, where tourism is the top industry.

“We’re seeing a consistent increase in the active cases across the territory since the Thanksgiving Day holiday,” U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said. “And we expect that as these days go by it’s going to get worse and those cases will continue to rise.”

Taking the little island of St. John as an example, Bryan said, “We’ve had more people with coronavirus tested positive within the last week than we have had within the last nine months.”

Four days after Vázquez put a damper on what is often called “the longest Christmas in the world” — Puerto Rico begins celebrating after Thanksgiving and ends celebrations in mid-January, after Three Kings Day — Bryan, asking Virgin Islanders to pray for their neighbors in Puerto Rico, announced his own tightened measures.

“We are going to put in further restrictions in order for us to beat and manage this pandemic,” he said during a Monday press conference on his administration’s COVID-19 response. They include 100 percent testing at the territory’s airports, fines and a 14-day quarantine for visitors refusing testing at the airport, and the cancellation of his administration’s Christmas events.

“All it takes is one person to make a complete disaster of this beautiful territory we have,“ said Bryan, who urged islanders not to plan or attend holiday gatherings as the USVI surpassed more than 100 active COVID-19 cases in its population of 106,977.

The U.S. territories are not alone. Jamaica, which says it’s preparing for an expected surge in cases this month and into the new year, recently told its vast diaspora to stay away.

“If you do not need to come home, stay where you are,” said State Minister for Education, Youth and Information Robert Nesta Morgan during a recent press conference. “If you do come home, as the prime minister said go to the [Resilient] Corridor and send a letter, and send some tablets.”

Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness has announced a 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day in hopes of minimizing the rise in COVID-19 during the holiday period. He also announced that a ban on parties and events will remain in force throughout December. The country has registered 11,509 confirmed cases and 270 deaths since March.

On Friday, the Health Ministry said that parts of the country are already showing an uptick in cases.

The Pan American Health Organization this week said while there are different patterns of COVID-19’s spread in the region, the climbing number of cases continues to be worrisome.

“Many countries in the Caribbean are also witnessing slight but steady increases in cases, such as the Dutch territories of Curacao, Aruba and St. Martin; and the British territories of Bermuda and the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos,” PAHO Director Dr. Carissa Etienne said in a weekly update with regional journalists on the situation of COVID-19 in the Americas.

Dr. Marcos Espinal, PAHO’s director of the Department of Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis, said the agency has not changed its stance against nonessential travel.

“It’s much better to spend many years doing holidays than to have one that could be very negative for us,” he said. “If we could spare this one and maybe do holiday season, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, on Zoom, or Teams or Skype or any other virtual meetings, that’s important. Traveling is risky.”

Despite that risk, some countries are still willing to take it and are pushing hard to get visitors back to their beaches.

In a Nov. 6 tweet on his personal account, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse invited the country’s diaspora to come home for the holidays, saying: “Come see your family. Come see your friends. Come and celebrate at home.” Haitians living abroad are largely in Florida and New York. On Thursday Florida’s Department of Health confirmed 11,335 additional cases of COVID-19 — the most in a single-day report since July

On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his city was going through a full second wave. of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, New York City residents are being blasted with tourism ads from Curacao, seeking to welcome American tourists from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut after reopening to tourists. The Bahamas has also reopened its tourism sector, welcoming back this week the reopening of its mega Atlantis Paradise Island resort. Next week Baha Mar, another mega resort, will also reopen. The Bahamas, Curacao and Haiti are all under a CDC Level 4, Very High Level of Covid-19 warning.

“This deadly virus and the subsequent and quick collapse of our tourism industry, and the decline in other areas of the economy, has hit Bahamians hard,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said as he welcomed back the reopened properties along with the Hilton, and announced loosened restrictions for locals during the holidays.

The reopened properties, Minnis said, will help restore employment opportunities for many who have lost their jobs or been furloughed due to the pandemic. “After nearly three years of economic recovery, growth and an increase in jobs, our economy is in terrible shape because of COVID-19,” he said.

The Bahamas, which has undergone several lockdowns, has logged 7,585 COVID-19 cases and 163 deaths. Recognizing the threat that reopening the economy poses, Minnis said “during this period before vaccines arrive here, we must work extra hard to keep our numbers down, so that we can continue to restart our economy and to welcome tourists.”

In Puerto Rico, however, some still worry that the holiday’s COVID measures aren’t enough. On Friday, the island of 3.2 million residents reported the highest number of confirmed cases in one day since the coronavirus was first detected: 1,517 infections.

“The executive order we have now is very similar to the executive order we had in mid-August and early September, which established controls that did not reduce infections,” said Bianca Valdés Fernandez, a Ph.D. candidate of immunology and parasitology at the University of Puerto Rico, and a member of a public health citizen committee that analyzes the government’s COVID-19 policies.

“It was very strange to me that at a time when we have the highest number of cases and deaths and our hospitals are on the verge of collapse, we don’t take the most restrictive measures.”

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.