Strict new maximum numbers for restaurants and bars – as gov’t warns second lockdown could be ahead

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by Gemma Handy

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A second national lockdown is ahead if coronavirus cases increase by three a day over the space of a week, government warned yesterday.

Currently, cases are rising by just over two a day with 16 new ones confirmed between January 13 and 20.

Meanwhile, restaurants and bars are to be issued with strict limits on the number of guests they may accommodate at any one time. Violators are warned they face “penalties” including temporary closure.

A number of venues have already been stung with forced closures this month for allowing in throngs of tightly-packed patrons.

The new maximum numbers – which will be individually determined depending on each business’ size – will be “published conspicuously”, Information Minister Melford Nicholas told Thursday’s post-Cabinet press briefing.

Last week, residents were told to call 911 to report social distancing breaches.

Some of the biggest offenders are said to be in the English Harbour area, where health officials were yesterday poised to begin the process of issuing special certificates to the lively sailing hub’s entertainment spots.

“What we used to do is just inspect them for sanitation etc. Now, because of Covid, we are going in to do measurements and from that, we will come up with how many people each place can comfortably hold to practice social distancing of six feet,” Chief Health Inspector Sharon Martin told Observer.

“If the establishment used to be able to seat 15, it may cut down to 10 or eight. We will then give them a certificate which will have on it the number of people permitted to be inside the place at any given time,” she explained.

Martin said her team would first target “hotspots” known for “overcrowding”.

Government is keenly aware of the fine line to tread between keeping infections down, tourists coming and the economy afloat. Curtailing the spread of the virus – particularly in the face of new, more virulent strains – will prove crucial.

“At least one bar” is already known to have triggered an “effective spread” of Covid-19, Nicholas said yesterday, blaming a “lack of regard” for safety protocols.

Nicholas said government was reluctant to implement another nationwide lockdown but said it may be left with no option.

Government has previously hinted that a second shutdown could be on the cards – but yesterday was the first time a precise threshold has been given.

“If we begin to see the infections race upwards … there’s a ratio the Minister of Health presented to us; if over a seven-day period we begin to see the numbers tick upwards of three, it would mean we are heading into that realm and of course will be required to look at all the other stringent measures, inclusive of another shutdown,” the Information Minister told journalists.

“This is obviously something no one wants to do; it is going to be disruptive, it is going to be impacting on businesses and the economy, but the health of our people comes first,” Nicholas said.

“Let us just be mindful, be cognisant and conscious of doing those things that worked so well for us last year, and ensure we can stay within that safety realm.”

Up to last night, there were 24 active virus cases in Antigua and Barbuda – one of which is hospitalised – according to the latest dashboard released by the Ministry of Health. To date, the country has recorded 192 cases of Covid-19 since it was first confirmed here in March last year.

There are said to be 167 tests currently pending.

Government again urged residents to abide by rules on mask-wearing, physical distancing and social gathering limits.

With regards to the latter, the 10-person maximum extends to wedding receptions too, while funerals should have no more than 25 people in the cemetery, minutes from Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting said.

“These two social gatherings are responsible for a significant number of infections, therefore, special rules governing their practice are to be followed and enforced,” the notes read.

There was an extra appeal issued to returning nationals who were again said to be putting the country at risk by evading quarantine.

“Based on clear observations, this is the area in which we have the greatest risk because when persons are returning here they want to be with friends and family,” Nicholas said.

“On the occasions they have returned for events such as weddings and funerals – and accordingly when they breach the quarantine facility and they mingle with the rest of the local population – that is where we are exposed to risk,” he added.

Earlier this week, the opposition United Progressive Party said it would not support a second shutdown of the country, calling instead for increased enforcement of Covid rules.

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