As U.S. becomes new coronavirus hot zone, Latin America and Caribbean throw up barriers

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Since the coronavirus first surfaced in China in late 2019, the United States has increasingly barred travelers from areas thought to be hot zones for the infection.

Now, as COVID-19 cases are exploding in Florida, New York, Washington and California, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are increasingly trying to keep U.S. travelers at bay.

Guatemala, El Salvador, Aruba, St. Maarten, the Dominican Republic and Guyana have all blocked flights from the U.S. — along with other danger zones such as Italy, Spain, Iran and China.

On Thursday, Colombia said it would be suspending all international flights for a month starting March 23. And Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is petitioning the Federal Aviation Administration to block U.S. mainlanders from arriving on the Caribbean island, which now has at least six coronavirus cases — all of them imported.

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Haiti, which confirmed its first two cases Thursday, also announced that as of 12:01 a.m. Friday, all of its seaports and airports would be closed to passengers. Four days earlier, the poverty-stricken nation had announced the cancellation of all international flights except for those coming from Cuba and the United States.

Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, said a dozen countries in the region have instituted travel restrictions; eight have instituted border closures and controls, and another dozen have imposed just border controls.

While experts think the shutdowns will likely drive the global economy into a recession, just how deep the damage might be is unclear.

“The only thing I think is becoming interesting is that the borders are being opened for the movement of medicines and medical supplies, at least in South America. So that’s positive,” said Bárcena, speaking to reporters about the impact of the coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean during a talk organized by the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “But we don’t have yet an economic calculation. ... Sectors like tourism, entertainment and the closing of borders are going to have a very big impact on the economy.”

While data suggest the United States is still not the major carrier of the coronavirus to the region — its growing role is hard to ignore.

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Jamaican Health Minister Christopher Tufton said the United States is among the nations exporting the coronavirus to his country, which now has 16 confirmed cases, including its first death on Wednesday. The patient was a 79-year-old man, with diabetes and hypertension, and a travel history to New York.

Last week, Jamaica announced travel restrictions for the United Kingdom after five of its cases involved travel to the UK and opposition leaders questioned whether the government was scared to impose a travel ban because leaders were afraid of their former colonizer. And earlier this week, it began requiring all travelers from countries where there is local transmission of the coronavirus to self-quarantine for up to 14 days.

“This includes tourists, which would affect U.S. travelers, as well as Jamaicans who are coming from the U.S. because we have a large diaspora,” Tufton said.

The quarantine regime requires visitors to stay inside their hotel compounds, he said.

“It doesn’t restrict persons from enjoying the beach, the pools or the other amenities in the hotel but it does restrict movement off property,” he said. “It does still offer a chance for persons to come and relax.”

Jamaica’s not alone in seeing the U.S. as a source of new infections.

On Friday, Puerto Rico reported two new COVID-19 cases — bringing its total to eight — that health officials said both were “imported” from Florida.

Guyana announced the closure of its airport to incoming international passengers after finding U.S. travel history among several of its five confirmed positive cases. There was a woman who tested positive on March 11 and died that same day after arriving from New York. Later her husband and son, who also traveled from New York, tested positive as well, Shamdeo Persaud, the country’s chief medical officer, told the Miami Herald.

The Dutch Caribbean territory of St. Maarten, which this week registered its first case, announced that the male resident who tested positive for COVID-19 had passed through Miami on his trip to the United Kingdom.

On the same day that St. Maarten announced its findings, Barbados also reported its first two positive cases: a 48-year-old visitor from the U.S., and a 39-year-old Barbadian female who had recently returned from the U.S. On Thursday, while announcing three more positive cases — the husband of the visiting U.S. tourist; a crew member of a cruise ship; and a 60-year-old Barbadian who arrived over the weekend from New York City — Prime Minister Mia Mottley reluctantly announced new restrictions involving U.S. travel.

“We have also taken a decision, given the fact that these cases that have presented themselves with Barbadians have come from New York, that any persons arriving from the USA, from the United Kingdom or Europe, will have to quarantine or self-quarantine, if they’re Barbadian, for 14 days going forward,” Mottley said.

Mottley said the restrictions take effect beginning Sunday and she anticipates that “there will be a continued reduction” in airline transport services. “American Airlines, after next week, will not be flying until early May again.”

“We do not anticipate that there will be significant numbers at the airport. Why are we not closing its completely?” Mottley said of the airport. “Because at the end of the day this country needs to be able to have access to the international world.”

Mottley had been reluctant to impose travel bans, even while others around her were doing so. And on Thursday, she sought to calm her citizens while also giving them a dose of reality.

“There is virtually no country in the world [that] is escaping this,” she said, as she continued to defend her decision to not do an outright ban.

“When people talk about closing their borders, you cannot take a blanket decision to just close your borders because opening them back up doesn’t just happen with a twinkle of the nose,” she said, snapping her fingers and twitching her nose. “We need to make sure [we get] the things we need, as much as possible, to keep normalcy.”

Another country that initially opted for a partial shutdown was Haiti. It had indicated that it would close all of its borders to foreigners — a move the neighboring Dominican Republic decided to take as of 6 a.m. Thursday — but then revised its stance by making an exception for the United States, home to its largest diaspora. After confirming two imported cases, President Jovenel Moïse announced a complete closure to international traffic.

Even countries that had already previously registered positive cases from non-U.S. travelers now say they are finding a history of U.S. history among their new cases.

The world seems to be embracing the idea of broad and painful travel bans. The European Union this week closed its borders to all non-resident foreigners. And the United States on Wednesday shut its massive northern frontier with Canada to non-essential traffic. On Thursday the U.S. State Department asked all Americans to stop traveling and those who are abroad to come home.

There’s reason to be wary of the United States. Of the hemisphere’s estimated 13,069 cases, 10,422 of them are in the United States, according to the Pan-American Health Organization, PAHO.

“The decision to implement travel bans and restrictions is based entirely on risk assessment by individual countries,” and not up to global health organizations, Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, the assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, said in a statement.

Travel “restrictions of this nature are believed to have some effect in slowing transmission at the start of an outbreak,” he said. “However, it is vital that any measures of this nature are carried out alongside surveillance, contact tracing and isolation of any imported cases.”

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