International airport closes down; confirmed Coronavirus case on Ambergris Caye leads to mandatory quarantine
Tuesday, March 24th, 2020
After the last scheduled flight wheeled up from the Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport on Monday, March 23rd, it became officially closed down for passengers, and only remains open for freight and cargo. As this crucial closure was to occur, earlier in the day, Prime Minister Right Honourable Dean Barrow announced that a San Pedro Town woman tested positive for COVID-19 (Coronavirus). The woman reportedly arrived in Belize from the United States of America on Thursday, March 19th and went into self-isolation a day after, when she began feeling ill. The situation on the island escalated, as islanders tried to leave, triggering an immediate mandatory 72-hour quarantine (which began at 3pm on Monday, March 23rd). Declared by the government, the quarantine restricts people from leaving or traveling to San Pedro. During this time, the Ministry of Health will conduct a proper mapping and tracing in an effort to identify potential persons that were in contact with the patient.
Belize has now completely closed all its borders, and will review this decision less than 30 days from now. The northern border with Mexico was closed on Saturday night, March 21st, and the Philip S.W Goldson International Airport on Monday evening. The woman infected with Coronavirus arrived in the country five days ago from Los Angeles California, via Houston Texas. The last update on her condition says that she seems to be on the road to recovery, after only experiencing mild symptoms. Usually Coronavirus triggers dry cough, fever and respiratory complications. But according to the latest update from personnel of the Ministry of Health, this particular patient does not have a fever, but does have a cough. Tests have been conducted on every known person that interacted with her after her arrival to Belize. The ministry will update on those test results when they become available.
Government sets mandatory quarantine for San Pedro
Following a meeting within the COVID-19 National Oversight Committee in Belize City, monitoring the pandemic, the Government of Belize decided to declare a state of emergency for Ambergris Caye and for the following three days the island will remain completely shut down (quarantine). The news of the first confirmed case on the island led to many islanders attempting to leave the island. However, they were not able to do so after the order was given to stay put. Water taxi companies’ runs were suspended, and flights out of San Pedro were cancelled. A couple of boats were able to make it to Belize City, but had difficulty being allowed to dock. After negotiating for some time, people were allowed to disembark and were screened before they could continue their journey, while others hoping to return to the Cayes found themselves unable to head back home. Other measures to be implemented include the closing of all restaurants for dining, with the possibility of only being open for take-out services.
San Pedro turns into a ghost town
The hustle and bustle of San Pedro is gone, and the prime tourism destination in the country now mimics that of a ghost town. The mandatory quarantine is being enforced to allow mapping and tracing of persons that may have come in contact with the islander that tested positive.
Shops downtown are closed for three days, and to secure their businesses many of these establishments have nailed boards and plywood on the windows of their buildings. The town is expected to see zero commercial activity for the next three days, but establishments are hoping to open for business by Friday, March 27th, when the mandatory shut down is lifted. This decision will depend on how the situation with the confirmed case evolves.
The Officer in Charge of the Coastal Executive Unit (Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker), Superintendent Christopher Noble stated in an update discussion at Reef TV that all hands are on deck, and the Belize Police Department has extended additional resources for the island’s police force to keep the community safe during quarantine. Noble also added that the Belize Coast Guard is working in tandem with them and will secure the surrounding waters of the island.
Relief Fund for those most affected
Persons working in tourism have taken a hard hit after hundreds were laid off because of the absence of tourists. The Government of Belize approved a relief fund as part of National Budget passed on Thursday, March 19th, which includes $25 million to help those without jobs. In an interview during the talk show at Reef TV, Area Representative and Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation, Honourable Manuel Heredia Jr. told islanders that it would take about one to two weeks before that relief can be used. Heredia could not say how much funds each person/family will receive and does not know for how long the relief fund will last. The public was also reminded that on Wednesday, March 25th, the government will hold a press conference to present the economic relief measures in an attempt to address this issue that is affecting many Belizeans.
Heredia asked everyone to be more united than ever on this critical time. “Let’s be proactive in unity, together with your family and friends let us help one another,” he said. “This is a global crisis and let’s face it together and do as best as we can.” Heredia added that tourism contributes to 40% of the government’s Gross Domestic Product and warned that the national economy could collapse without this industry. He projected the recovery of the tourism sector in about six months after the pandemic has passed. Heredia asked for comprehension and to have faith in his government, which is doing everything it can to mitigate this deadly disease that has caused thousands of deaths since emerging in December 2019.
Mayor Guerrero was also present and asked for the cooperation of every islander to get over this health threat. He asked residents to follow the key instructions that include proper hand-washing and staying at home. Guerrero reiterated that the quarantine is to conduct the mapping of the island to determine who all may have had contact with the patient that tested positive for Coronavirus. The Mayor highlighted that they have placed billboards around the island reminding everyone what to do to avoid getting sick. Guerrero and Heredia said that they will closely continue following the situation and provide daily updates on the situation with the confirmed case and what other measures could be considered to guarantee the safety of all residents.
A meeting has also been scheduled with the utility companies to find out what can be worked out in terms of water and electricity fees during this time. Landlords are also being asked to be lenient on their tenants, who have supported their business all along and not to vacate them in case they cannot pay rent.
In the meantime, everyone is asked to avoid close contact with persons with flu-like symptoms. Avoid sharing personal items and disinfect common surfaces. If you or a loved one are experiencing fever, cough or difficulty breathing, as mentioned before, a call should be made to Dr. Canul at the Dr. Otto Rodriguez San Pedro Polyclinic II at 605-2433 and arrangements will be made for medical personnel to visit you at home.
The Belize Government emphasizes that Belizeans remain calm; fear is the most dangerous contagion. The most effective action each Belizean can take to secure the safety of themselves, their families and the country is to follow the hygiene rules. Washing hands with soap and water, using a sanitizer if necessary, covering a cough or sneeze, trying not to touch the eyes, nose or mouth, and immediately dispose of tissues if used to cover a cough or sneeze.
Remember to stay updated on official information concerning COVID-19. Visit the Government of Belize Press Office website at www.pressoffice.bz; or the Facebook pages for the Ministry of Health, the Director of Health Services, and the Government of Belize Press Office; or call the Ministry of Health’s hotline at 0-800-MOH-CARE.
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