From shuttering schools to closing borders and banning tourists, the Caribbean and Latin America are taking drastic steps to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus as the region sees the number of confirmed and suspected cases steadily grow.
Jamaica, which had already banned all public gatherings after two people tested positive, announced Thursday that all schools with the exception of universities would be closed for 14 days as of Friday and the decision would be revisited in 10 days. Honduras, which also has two positive cases, also announced it was closing schools and banning all public events except for church services. It also announced a ban on all foreigners from Europe, China, Iran and South Korea.
Hours earlier, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico declared a state of emergency, while prohibiting all large gatherings and ordering the National Guard to begin health screenings at points of entry.
The island of 3.2 million people has 17 suspected coronavirus cases but is still waiting for confirmation on those cases from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
In a press conference, Gov. Wanda Vázquez said she’s been told those results will back by Friday.
In addition, the government is barring tourists from the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra saying only residents and those taking supplies will be allowed to travel to the islands.
The Bahamas Ministry of Transport also announced that it would not allow a Bahamas-flagged cruise ship with five individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 to dock, and passengers and crew would not be allowed to disembark. The Fred Olsen Cruise Line Braemar had already been denied entry into several Caribbean islands prior to the Bahamas’ ban.
“Should it arrive in Bahamian waters, The Bahamas will do all that it can to provide humanitarian assistance,” the ministry said in a statement. “This may include providing fuel, food, water and other supplies as needed by the vessel.”
On Wednesday, Panama, which registered the first COVID-19 death in Central America, announced the temporary closure of all schools and universities located in the regions of North and Central Panama, and San Miguelito. The country has 14 cases.
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That same day, El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele went even further to try and protect citizens. His nation is one of the few Central American countries that has no confirmed cases, and Bukele declared a 30-day state of emergency that includes a ban on foreign visitors who are not diplomats or permanent residents.
In Venezuela, leader Nicolás Maduro declared a “permanent state of emergency” and canceled all flights to Europe and Colombia for 30 days.
Venezuela, which has one of the world’s most dysfunctional healthcare systems, said it is still coronavirus-free.
“We have taken all preventive measures to detect the arrival to the country of the virus,” Maduro said Thursday. “As of today, it has not reached Venezuela, but we have to get ready.”
In neighboring Colombia, President Iván Duque also declared a health emergency, banning all events of more than 500 people including this weekend’s national soccer tournament. The South American country has nine confirmed cases of coronavirus.
Concerns over the virus arrival weighed heavily Thursday with the Caribbean Public Health Agency saying “the risk of further importation of cases to the Caribbean remains very high.”
French-speaking Haiti and the island of Martinique confirmed they were closely monitoring individuals due to concerns about possible exposure to COVID-19, which is caused by the flu-like virus.
In a press conference in Port-au-Prince Thursday, Health Minister Marie Greta Roy Clément sought to reassure the population there was no coronavirus in Haiti. Panic had ignited in the country after Haitians learned that 16 individuals, who arrived aboard a bus form the neighboring Dominican Republic, where there are five confirmed COVID-19 cases, were placed in quarantine in a hotel in the city of Tabarre. In response, some threw stones at the building.
“It’s 16 people who were in a bus where someone had died,” Clément said. “These 16 people do not have any signs or symptoms....We don’t have any suspicious or confirmed cases in Haiti to date.”
Clément said an autopsy was being done on the deceased and depending on the results, the fate of the passengers would be decided.
Martinique tourism officials also reported that they too were awaiting test results on passengers aboard the Costa Magic cruise ship. Martinique has three of the 11 confirmed cases in the French overseas territories, which includes five cases in French Guiana on the South American mainland. In a press release, tourism officials said the ship will remain three miles off shore from the bay of Fort-de-France while sick passengers onboard are tested.
The ship’s passengers were not the only ones who found themselves floating out at sea.
The island of Barbados had also denied landing rights to the Fred Olsen Cruise Line Braemar Thursday after it confirmed that four crew members and a passenger had tested positive for COVID-19.
Two weeks earlier the ship had been turned away from the Dominican Republic for fear several people aboard with flu-like symptoms might be carrying coronavirus. On Wednesday, the ship’s passing near Haiti’s southern coast created panic in the town of Port Salut after passengers heard there were people with COVID-19 aboard.
On its way to the Bahamas late Thursday, the Braemar said in a statement it was “ working with the Bahamas, the UK government, UK Chamber of Shipping and Public Heath England to ensure that all guests can return home as soon as possible.”
The crew and guest had tested positive the day before while the ship was docked in Willemstad, Curaçao the statement said. The test results of another guests were inconclusive.
The company said it has canceled its next cruise, “Islands of the Caribbean & the Azores,” and guests are being offered a full refund, including any additional expenses incurred.
Late Thursday, the Turks and Caicos Islands also announced travel bans for visitors from infected countries. The government also announced that cruise ships will not be allowed to dock in the British overseas territory if there are passengers who have traveled to, from or through an infected country within a period of 21 days or less immediately preceding the intended arrival in the Islands.
In total, the region has registered at least 1,192 confirmed coronavirus cases and at least 32 deaths, according to the latest report by the Pan American Health Organization.
The delayed reporting, however, does not include a second confirmed case in Jamaica, and one case each in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and in Guyana, where officials reported a 52-year-old woman had died after arriving in the English-speaking South American nation from New York.
It also does not include Trinidad and Tobago and the Cayman Islands. Each said Thursday they confirmed their first case of coronavirus. In the case of Trinidad, the virus was imported from Switzerland. The Cayman Islands said its patient had been on a cruise ship.
“The patient is a visitor who was transferred from a cruise ship for a critical cardiac issue,” said Dr. Samuel Williams-Rodriguez, the Cayman Islands’ medical health officer. The patient remains isolated and is currently receiving medical support.
In announcing the closure of schools Thursday, Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness said: “This present crisis affects travel in a significant way and affects supply chains in a significant way.”
El Nuevo Herald Reporter Jimena Tavel contributed to this story.