Visitors To Help Pay For Strict COVID-19 Testing Regime In Bermuda

(CMC) — Bermuda will introduce a strict COVID-19 testing regime when it opens its borders on Wednesday to international flights for the first time in more than three months, and tourists will have to help foot the bill.

The fourth — and final — phase of the easing of restrictions introduced in March to cope with the global coronavirus pandemic will kick in at 6:00 am (local time) on July 1, but a curfew will remain, although the hours will change from 11:00 pm to 5:00 am to midnight to 5:00 am.

The curfew will be reviewed on a weekly basis afterwards.

Premier David Burt, who is keen to belatedly kickstart the island’s summer tourism season, has praised local efforts to fight the coronavirus, and said there had been “a lot of work getting us to this point” with “excellent progress” in the battle against the pandemic, which has claimed nine lives among 146 confirmed cases on the island so far.

“We have truly punched above our weight,” he told the latest media briefing, praising the public’s “creativity, resilience and discipline” during months of restrictions.

Burt said he understood the reservations of those who felt Bermuda’s borders should remain closed, but noted that an extensive test programme would be used to keep visitors and residents safe.

“Bermuda’s regime will likely be the strictest in the world,” he said.

Health Minister Kim Wilson said tourists will be charged a US$75 fee to cover COVID-19 tests on arrival and intermittently throughout their stay.

Last week, Tourism Minister Zane DeSilva said the government would absorb the cost of the testing, but Burt fired back with a tweet saying, “rest assured, tourists will pay a fee for their testing”.

DeSilva has said only three of Bermuda’s regular air carriers will touch down here in July, and a Bermuda Tourism Authority (BTA) report has forecast a grim outlook for the second half of the year. The airport has been closed since March 20.

Air Canada is expected to fly once a week from Toronto from July 2, Delta Airlines is to start daily flights from Atlanta from July 6, and British Airways is scheduled to start a twice-a-week service from London from July 17.

Delta’s New York and Boston services will remain suspended. But JetBlue flights are likely to resume in August and American Airlines will also restart flights from New York at that time.

DeSilva said American Airlines flights from Philadelphia and Miami — a popular hub for residents flying from here to the Caribbean — would not resume before December.

“What we refer to as seasonal flights from Newark, Washington, DC and Charlotte are cancelled for 2020,” DeSilva said, adding that this year’s air capacity was expected to be 61.7 per cent of last year.

It is not clear when cruise ship visits will resume, but more than 130 of the 192 scheduled for this year have already been cancelled. Royal Caribbean International has suspended all voyages to the island until November.

There was a blow to tourism recovery efforts when Rosedon, an award-winning boutique hotel on the outskirts of Hamilton, announced at the weekend that it will not reopen until next year after paying laid-off staff redundancy packages and running up losses of close to half a million dollars since closing on March 18. But it said it would keep its Huckleberry restaurant open.

“The statistics and projections most recently announced with regard to limited airlift to Bermuda, and the associated reduction in tourists visiting our island for the next nine months, paints an incredibly bleak picture for all Bermudian hospitality businesses,” said Scott Kitson, a co-owner of the hotel.

“Hotel operations typically run at a loss for the first few months of the year, but are able to recoup most, if not all, of that loss through the high season between May and October.

“Regrettably, with best-case projections by the BTA reflecting occupancy at less than 50 per cent for the island through early 2021, we are forced to face the reality that returning to operations for the remainder of 2020 is not feasible.”

Last year, a record 800,000-plus tourists came to Bermuda, a British Overseas Territory in the north Atlantic.

The island’s already struggling economy has taken a battering from the pandemic and the national debt is expected to edge close to three billion US dollars. A 16-week unemployment benefits package for more than 9,000 laid-off workers — including 2,000 expatriates — is expected to cost the government up to US$50 million.

Bermuda, with a population of 64,000, has so far carried out close to 11,000 COVID-19 tests. The last positive cases were reported on June 19.