Assessing Risk Versus Reward as Sint Maarten Prepares to Reopen to US Tourism
Sint Maarten is scheduled to reopen the country to flights originating from the United States beginning on Saturday, August 1. Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs appears to be moving forward with this decision even though many people who live on the island have voiced concerns.
The question isn’t really about if the island is ready to welcome back tourists (it is), but rather it’s about whether the island can continue to control what is clearly an uncontrollable virus.
As recently as July 10, 2020, there were no active cases of COVID-19 on the Dutch side of the island. This was due to the lockdown that the Prime Minister herself imposed in Sint Maarten along with other social distancing, health, and wellness guidelines that were implemented.
Fast forward to July 29, 2020 (yesterday), and there are now 47 active cases of COVID-19 on the Dutch side of the island. Within under three weeks cases went from zero to 47.
In addition, due to the travel ban currently in place on travelers arriving from the United States to France and other Schengen Zone countries, the French side of the island, Saint-Martin, has announced that they will be placing travel restrictions between the French and Dutch sides beginning on Friday at noon, effectively closing the border in response to the Dutch side reopening to the US.
As August arrives on the island in a typical year, tourism declines. Many locals take time off and things tend to slow down quite a bit when compared to the high season, which runs from December through April. So, even in a normal year, August is typically a period of lower economic activity on Saint Martin.
And yes, August and September are also the most active months in the hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November 30. This season has already begun kicking up storms and predictions are for a more active hurricane season than normal.
It’s well known that COVID-19 is running rampant in the United States. I should know, I live here. I’m currently in Chicago where numbers are also rising as summer continues. Yes, all businesses require masks and most people are being responsible about wearing them. That doesn’t seem to change the rising numbers. And let’s not forget, we have an administration in this country that is clearly unable to handle this pandemic with any effectiveness, along with a small percentage of people who actually don’t quite seem to grasp the serious nature of the situation.
Let’s keep in mind that in many places in the U.S. it’s not possible to get PCR COVID-19 test results within 72 hours of departure, which is the requirement to enter Sint Maarten. In Chicago, the wait is at least 10 days, usually longer. And this is true throughout the country.
And yet, given all of this, the Prime Minister is currently poised to begin allowing flights from the U.S. beginning on Saturday.
Sint Maarten has limited medical resources to handle a pandemic outbreak. If a large hurricane should hit the island while it’s also trying to manage an unmanageable pandemic, the results would be (not could be) catastrophic. It’s honestly difficult to imagine what would happen in this situation, so I won’t even speculate.
So why would Sint Maarten open its borders to tourists from the U.S. during the low season? The reward — a sprinkling of tourists who will bring very little spending — seems far less than the risk. That risk is the widening of a pandemic during an active hurricane season. If things go sideways, as you can easily see happening, the broader risk becomes losing tourism in the high season.
No one in Sint Maarten has forgotten about hurricane Irma. And no one in Sint Maarten wants to relive that situation and the devastating economic impact it had on the economy. There is no question that this pandemic has already caused enormous damage to the economy of the island. But, just like a hurricane, there is nothing anyone can do except prepare and make the best decisions possible.
The risk of reopening Sint Maarten now is monumental. This is a mistake that hasn’t yet been made. Here’s hoping it stays that way.