Govt Urged to Relax Mask Mandates

A prominent hotelier yesterday urged the Government to consider relaxing COVID mask mandates in resorts and other tourist amenities where the majority of persons are fully vaccinated.

Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that easing pandemic-related restrictions as The Bahamas’ COVID case numbers continue to decline will further spur visitor demand just as this nation heads into its winter tourism peak and the Easter run-up.

Speaking after the Government agreed to a key request by the industry in eliminating the requirement for visitors to take a rapid antigen test 48 hours after arrival in The Bahamas, he added that “further relaxations over a period of time are warranted” given the country’s progress in suppressing the fourth COVID wave.

With the Davis administration reverting to the pre-Omicron policy of testing visitors “on the fifth day after arrival” in The Bahamas, Mr Sands told this newspaper: “I think the removal of these impediments are a step in the right direction, and it’s important we continue to address some of these protocols that are acting as inhibitors to travel, but this is a very positive move on the part of the Government.”

Asked what “inhibitors” he was referring to, Mr. Sands replied: “I believe that as the COVID numbers continue to fall, we’re looking forward to an upgrade by the CDC (US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) of The Bahamas’ position. That’s very important.

“Secondly, any additional testing requirements, and third, for the Government to address the issue is mask wearing in certain places. Certainly in restaurants, certainly in hotels, where people have been vaccinated and fully vaccinated, they should give some consideration to easing some of these restrictions where persons are fully vaccinated.”

The BHTA president confirmed that 90 percent and upwards of hotel guests are now arriving in The Bahamas fully vaccinated. The Bahamas has been under a mandatory mask mandate since the COVID-19 pandemic began for citizens, residents and tourists, and Mr. Sands’ comments mark the first time the suggestion of an ease has been voiced.

Mask mandates have been eliminated in many US states as well as the UK, as countries seek to return to some semblance of normality amid hopes that COVID may soon transition from a pandemic to endemic, and there is growing opinion and pressure for The Bahamas to follow suit with recorded cases on Sunday dropping to 16. Some 42 persons are still in hospital, of whom three are in intensive care.

Hinting at such thinking, Mr Sands told Tribune Business: “I believe that if the US removes their requirements for entry, then that may be an opportunity for The Bahamas to then consider removing that requirement. Every removal of some impediment helps.

“Notwithstanding that there’s still one or two remaining, there’s significant pent-up demand for The Bahamas, and the more we remove impediments the greater the demand for the destination will increase.

“And also it eliminates, from a perception point of view, inhibitors in the minds of the travelling public, and the satisfaction level increases exponentially. They see these things, notwithstanding there are still some safety issues, as a nuisance,” he continued.

“Most people respect safety protocols, but the way we’re moving, further relaxation over a period of time is welcome and warranted. I think that every time we see an impediment removed, we see a boost in business levels.”

Mr. Sands said this was witnessed just prior to Christmas 2021, when the Government announced that RT-PCR COVID tests would be mandatory from early January onwards as a response to the Omicron-induced case surge.

That resulted in a “contraction” of business, and the BHTA president said: “The minute the Government made the decision to go to a rapid antigen test, we saw that manifest itself in an upward surge in business. Now we’ve removed the 48-hour testing we’ll see a similar improvement.

“The message is out. We immediately circulated the information, and many different hotel websites have been updated and corrected to reflect the same. Our position is that we will continue to work with and support the Government in removing all these obstacles that may hinder travel to our destination, but cognisant of the fact we want to operate in a safe and healthy environment.”

Neil Hartnell: Tribune Business Editor