By Orville Williams
Although the Health Ministry has recorded significantly low Covid-19 figures over the past weeks, the Cabinet is not considering any relaxations to the existing protocols for the foreseeable future.
Information Minister Melford Nicholas made that declaration during yesterday’s post-Cabinet media briefing, to the disappointment of many within the population who believe greater freedoms should be forthcoming.
The government announced last week that the ongoing state of emergency would be extended until the end of September, a disclosure that drew the ire of opposition parties and social commentators.
In the same breath, however, some changes were made to the restrictions, including the ending of the 25-person limit on weddings and funeral services in churches, as well as the same limit on gatherings at burial grounds.
Those limitations will now be determined by the capacity of the churches and the cemeteries with respect to the required six feet physical distancing.
There were no changes to two of the most debated restrictions, the 25-person limit on social gatherings and the nightly curfew, which currently runs from 11pm to 5am. The explanation given then was that further relaxations could increase the risk of new infections, as residents could begin to disregard the established protocols.
Now, with the Health Ministry reporting no active Covid cases, no hospitalised patients and no new infections over the past two weeks, the question of whether consideration has been given to any further relaxations was again posed to Nicholas.
“No, not at the moment. We believe that we have to hold steady and we still have to be cautious,” he responded.
Despite the criticisms it has faced, the government’s decision to delay further restrictions could prove a smart move. Several countries have loosened and continue to loosen their restrictions due to a decline in infections and hospitalisations, before having to promptly revert to tightening those restrictions, as a result of new infections.
Newly discovered variants are often the cause of these reversions, but increased social activity is also to blame in some territories.
The latter could apply to Antigua and Barbuda, with the country set to welcome an influx of visitors over the next couple months via overnight stays and cruise vessels, but the cruises, in particular, is where the problem could arise.
Starting July 1, businesses in the US state of Florida – including cruise operators, according to Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis – will be banned from asking customers to show proof of vaccination.
Some cruise lines, including those that previously insisted on only transporting vaccinated passengers, have already adjusted their plans to comply with the new law, which comes with a $5,000 fine for each violation.
Celebrity Cruises – which saw three of its vessels dock in Antigua in April for “technical calls and warm layups” – is one of the major operators that have made this move.
What that means is Antigua and Barbuda could very well be welcoming unvaccinated tourists to its shores in the near future, a reality that the government has accepted.
“In all likelihood, we may be obliged to deal with another few cases in the weeks and months ahead, so any further relaxation of the protocols at this stage would be premature.
“We’d want to re-emphasise and invite our public to pay attention that the thing which gives us the greatest confidence to be able to relax the protocols would be the immunity of the population and as we get closer and closer to that number, we are likely to relax these procedures and these protocols,” Nicholas explained.
He added that discussions will be had with tourism sector officials, over the added risk caused by the developments in Florida and the mitigating measures that are required, including primarily vaccinations.
Some cruise operators though, including Norwegian Cruise Line CEO, Frank Del Rio, have hit out at the changes to the Florida law, insisting that they will still require their adult passengers to be vaccinated, even if it means operating from another state.