In one of his first major moves as president, Joe Biden imposed a slew of new travel and safety restrictions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 cases, but the new orders are not going over well with Jamaican and other Caribbean officials, who claim the new president is attempting to limit travel to the islands.
After hinting at a national mask mandate throughout his presidential campaign, the order was the first that was signed on his first day in office. President Biden’s mask order for travel applies to airports, buses, trains and other public transportation.
He also introduced other travel restrictions including a ban on nationals from several countries, a mandatory quarantine period and a negative COVID-19 test requirement for all travelers to the U.S.
The travel ban was imposed on non-U.S. travelers from Brazil, South Africa, Ireland, the United Kingdom and 26 other European countries that allow travel across open borders.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced that South Africa was added to the restricted list because of concerns about a variant of the virus that has spread beyond that nation.
The prohibition Biden is reinstating suspends entry to nearly all foreign nationals who have been in any of the countries on the restricted list at any point during the 14 days before their scheduled travel to the U.S.
Travelers who are allowed into the United States must now furnish a negative COVID-19 test taken three days before departing for the U.S. and must also quarantine upon arrival. This travel order, signed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which also applies to American citizens, went into effect on January 26.
The CDC order spells trouble for small nations like Jamaica, which have been struggling to meet the demand for testing for tourists from Canada and the United Kingdom. These two countries require travelers to present a negative PCR testing before boarding their flight, while the United States accepts the rapid Antigen test.
Delano Seiveright, a strategist in Jamaica’s Ministry of Tourism, said Jamaica is having difficulty meeting the demand for testing because richer nations are buying up a majority of the testing resources.
“The fundamental issue is that developed, richer countries are soaking up a lot of the capacity as it relates to COVID-19 equipment and testing. It’s a challenge for smaller, developing countries to get around it,” he said. The scarcity of the tests has even led to some smaller local hotels gouging prices—offering testing in association with private testing entities for as much as USD $300 to visitors.
Many U.S. airlines, including Spirit and American Airlines, that fly frequently to the Caribbean requested temporary waivers that would exempt some travelers coming from countries with limited testing, but the CDC refused the requests.
Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Ed Bartlett calls America’s new travel protocol a recipe for disaster. “I’m convinced that the implication of all of this is in pursuance of a ‘No Travel’ strategy without coming out, outright to say so,” he told the Miami Herald.
He said that while the United States could survive with strict travel restrictions, the Caribbean, which is dependent on the travel and tourism business will be having “a serious crisis.”
In 2020, Jamaica’s unemployment rate jumped to 10.7 percent, up from 7.2 percent in 2019. Over 130,000 Jamaicans in the labor force are still out of a job, despite the island’s economy reopening in June 2020. Prime Minister Andrew Holness says Jamaica’s current hotel occupancy is only about 30 percent, while tourism earnings are down by 70 percent.
Despite the grim outlook, Jamaica’s tourism ministry has designated a special task force to spearhead efforts to boost Jamaica’s COVID-19 testing capacity. Other Caribbean countries and hotel chains are doing the same.
In The Bahamas, visitors who stay longer than five days are required to take a rapid antigen test, which means travelers readily have access to the viral tests.
In St. Lucia, testing is available at select hotels or at local testing facilities, while the Barbados government recently announced it is providing testing for outbound travelers.
Hotel groups like Sandals Resorts, Palace Resorts, and the Palladium Hotel Group are also providing on-site testing for their guests.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness says the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about the need to diversify the country’s economy. But he admitted that until that happens, the island—and the entire region—is still heavily dependent on tourism, and as such needs international travel to return safely.