PHILIPSBURG--If industry partners and Parliament agree, St. Maarten could soon implement rapid-antigen testing for visitors to the island, based on a proposal by Minister of Public Health, Social Development and Labour VSA Richard Panneflek.
“We will have to use rapid testing if we want to reopen St. Maarten responsibly,” said Panneflek in a press release on Sunday.
The minister said that his goal is to test expeditiously all visitors as a means of protecting both guests and the population, and reducing the spread and contamination of COVID-19. According to the minister, the specific rapid tests to be used by the VSA Ministry will be announced at a later date.
St. Maarten’s ports of entry closed on March 17, bringing a significant portion of the island’s economic activity to a halt. “Thousands of people are still without work, while others have suffered through having up to 50 per cent of their salaries cut because the companies they work for had to close their doors,” said the release.
The VSA Ministry is giving food-basket support to residents, but Panneflek said that will not be enough. He said the fact that many of the hotels, restaurants and other businesses on the island remain closed means that many residents are still unable to earn a living. “The island did its best in the past few months to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and keep the population safe. However, the time has come for the hard decision on reopening and restoring some sense of normalcy amid the global pandemic,” said the release.
Panneflek said he will also be seeking the support of Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) along with the hotel industry and other public sector partners to get the process completed.
“It is time for the difficult decision to restore the economic pillar of the island healthily and responsibly so our residents can earn a living,” said Panneflek. He said consideration must be given to make it easy for visitors to come to St. Maarten, and taking innovative steps to do so is the right approach.
“We need to do what we can and it should not stop here. We must also have the discussion on lifting entry requirements for United States (US) citizens, and it will propel us into the future as leaders of the tourism industry,” he added.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, some islands, including Antigua and Barbuda, are considering requesting their visitors to test themselves 48 hours before arrival. Some islands have also indicated that they have a mandatory curfew and will restrict group gatherings up to 25 people.
“St. Maarten is in competition with others whether we want to admit it or not. We also have a responsibility to our neighbouring islands who use our airport as a hub. If we can protect the passengers transiting to their destinations then we will be adding value to them, and as Minister of Health it is imperative that I take action to avoid rather than repair after,” said Panneflek.
He said another option would be asking guests to provide us with a test done 48 hours prior, but the risk is that these guests can still contract the coronavirus within that two-day window.
“We can consider options such as testing only people with symptoms, but science shows that persons can carry the virus without showing signs. If we take that approach, it puts our residents at higher risk, which is why we must test everyone,” he added.
Panneflek said he would ask Parliament to approve a nominal fee to be added to visitors’ airfare to covers the cost of administering the Rapid Antigen test. The idea is also to seek the support of his colleague Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication (TEATT), to dialogue with industry partners such as airlines and travel agencies to request that they inform visitors of the non-invasive Rapid Antigen test on arrival.
On May 9, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its first set of Rapid Antigen test kits. The process is easy to administer, reasonably accurate and gives results almost immediately.
Panneflek said within 15 minutes, guests will receive a welcome drink and a St. Maarten-style reception while they get the rapid test. They can also go through immigration processing at the same time. “In this new normal, we believe that this approach will also help the visitors who are anxiously waiting to return to beautiful beaches and sun in the sea, to be comfortable choosing our destination,” he added.
“I think we can set the standard in the industry for the way economies can reopen, while still maintaining a safe environment,” said Panneflek.
According to the release, research shows bookings coming out of Miami, Florida, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to St. Maarten for major airlines are between 82 and 93 per cent, which indicates a high interest from visitors to return.
To address the question of which countries to allow or restrict based on their number of COVID-19 cases, Panneflek said at present, the US with a population of 328 million people shows 0.06 per cent of its population have contracted the coronavirus. Holland and France have a combined population of 84 million people, and their combined COVID-19 cases amount to 0.02 per cent.
“However, the majority of visitors come from the USA where, based on their population, they have a larger number of COVID-free people who we want to accept to our shores just as much as we wish to welcome the European visitor,” said Panneflek. “Our goal must therefore be to responsibly and safely open for all.”
Panneflek said that the concept of safeguarding residents while increasing their potential to earn a living through increased economic activity from our main economic pillar includes possibly putting a staging area on the airport ramp where guests can be quickly tested.