Source: Miami Herald
By:BY JACQUELINE CHARLES AND TAYLOR DOLVEN
Outside the doors of Miami International Airport, life is shutting down as restaurants in Miami-Dade County prepare to close their indoor dining rooms — once again — in the face of spiking COVID-19 infections.
But inside the airport, things are beginning to look closer to normal. On Tuesday, anxious travelers, wearing masks and face shields, checked themselves in at kiosks, waited in long security lines and rushed to make flights, as American Airlines relaunched service to eight previously suspended Caribbean destinations.
“Today is a moment of great satisfaction for me to be able to return home,” said lawyer Maxson Orlélus, 44, who was flying back to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after being stranded in the United States since March when his return flight was canceled after Haiti closed its airports and land borders.
The only daily American Airlines flight to Haiti joins flights to four destinations in the Dominican Republic and three in the Bahamas that took off from MIA. The three countries are among the latest group of Caribbean nations to end travel restrictions after closing seaports and airports in March to stem the transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Florida’s COVID-19 surge leads to tighter restrictions for some Caribbean visitors
With Central and South American nations and Europe also shutting down borders earlier in the year, the closures resulted in 98.31% drop in international passenger traffic at MIA in April, compared to the same month a year ago. The month of May was just as quiet, with internatinoal traffic down 98.04% compared to May 2019, according to Miami-Dade County data.
But in June, airport traffic began picking up again as Caribbean countries began relaxing restrictions.
On Monday, 28,190 total passengers went through the airport — nearly as many as the number of international passengers who transited at MIA in the entire month of April.
“With [American Airlines] expanding from about 100 daily flights to 160 after today, we expect to see our daily traffic increase from nearly 30,000 passengers now to about 40,000,” said MIA spokesperson Greg Chin.
Later this month, American will relaunch service to St. Lucia, Aruba, St. Vincent, St. Maarten and Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos after resuming service in June to Antigua and Jamaica.
Juan Carlos Liscano, American Airlines’ vice president of operations for Miami, the Caribbean and Latin America, said the airline is continuing to fly a limited schedule from its Miami hub, operating 51% of its schedule compared to last year.
American, however, has done away with social distancing on planes and is selling its flights at full capacity, which some passengers noted.
Liscano said the airline is using High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, which are hospital-grade, and believes “that combined with face coverings and disinfecting process it will provide a safe travel experience for our customers.”
He said it was good to see customers back inside the terminals, and the airline is looking forward to resuming the schedule it had six months ago.
“Today looks like a normal day, but it’s nice to see a few more customers throughout the terminal,” he said.
Miami-Dade Aviation Department Director Lester Sola said MIA has taken significant steps to keep passengers and employees safe at the airport.
Measures such as audio and visual messaging of social distancing and mask requirements, along with hand sanitizer, additional cleaning and plexiglass installations, should provide the necessary protection for the additional passengers generated by these and other flights, he said.
While Caribbean destinations are starting to reopen, much of Central and South American remains on lockdown. As infections and fatalities continue to rise — with the Americas region recording 100,000 cases of COVID-19 a day, according to the Pan American Health Organization — governments continue to weigh the risk of welcoming back visitors and their own stranded citizens.
PAHO reiterated Tuesday that any decision to resume non-essential travel should be informed by a country’s capacity to monitor the health of travelers once they arrive in the country as part of the pandemic response.
It also noted that given the spread of infections aboard cruise ships during the pandemic, and a ban on cruising still in place from the U.S. health authorities, resuming cruise traffic might be more challenging than air traffic.
“Resuming non-essential travel or tourism is a difficult call for any country and especially for those with economies highly dependent on tourism,” said Dr. Ciro Ugarte, director of health emergencies for PAHO. “It is not possible to resume the influx of international tourists with zero risks of COVID-19 cases.”
Jamaica, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados and Belize in Central America have all reported COVID-19 infections among repatriated cruise-ship workers, in some cases after weeks without registering any new infections. Haiti has also recorded new infections after reopening Toussaint Louverture International Airport last week.
After cases began surging in the United States, and Florida in particular, a number of Caribbean countries have tightened entry requirements to minimize risk. The Bahamas, for example, which previously said tourists did not need proof they were free of the coronavirus, reversed itself days ahead of its June 1 opening to tourists.
Tourists now need to present proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR laboratory test prior to their arrival. The requirement, however, has received mixed reaction from travelers, who are required to upload their test results to a government website before their arrival.
“You know, you just can’t walk up to someplace and say give me a COVID test and walk out with the results,” said Rich Ashman, 61, who was waiting to board a flight to Nassau. He was forced to leave his boat docked there in March when the country shut down.
Ashman, who is from New Orleans and was traveling with two of his friends, said it took him four days to get his test result. His friend, Lamar Ard, 65, said he didn’t get his back until five days later, and only after being persistent.
“The stressful thing for us was getting it all done in a timely fashion and getting it approved,” said Ard. “The upside to the whole deal is we are going to a private boat where we can relax somewhat.”
“We don’ t have a check-in date or a check-out date,” said fellow traveler, Sid Charbonnet, 50.
Ashman, who was still deciding whether he would be bringing his power boat back to the U.S. or leaving it in the Bahamas, said the reality of the testing requirement is that “we were all negative last Monday.”
“The moral of the story is that it’s not that easy to get everything done,” he added. “Most places won’t even test you unless you have symptoms, so what do you do? Lie and say you have symptoms? We luckily found a place that would do work-related COVID tests. … I think the Bahamian government thinks it’s easy to get a test and it’s not.”
Haiti, which has gone back and forth on the testing requirement, and the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, so far are not requiring travelers to present proof they are COVID-free.
Unlike the Bahamas, which has registered 104 infections and 11 deaths, the island of Hispaniola leads the Caribbean in confirmed cases. Haiti has 6,371 cases and 113 deaths, while the Dominican Republic has recorded 38,128 cases and 804 deaths.
That reality was not lost on passengers Tuesday. Already nervous about flying on a crowded airplane, they said they were concerned about the spread in their respective countries.
“I am nervous,” said Cristina Cruz, who was traveling back to Santo Domingo after being stranded in the U.S. for four months.
Santiago Rivas, who was also waiting to board the Santo Domingo flight, said he planned to stock up on provisions and do what he did in Miami: Lock himself up in his house.
A retired pilot and aircraft engineer, he wasn’t nervous about the spread of infections on the flight, citing the airplanes’ filtration system, which he said he’s familiar with.
Rivas said he came to Miami to see doctors and has spent “the last four-and-a-half months” trying to get back to the Dominican Republic.
“It was a very strange feeling, me being unable to go back home. It’s something we have never experienced in our lifetime. The whole thing is strange,” said Rivas. “I came here for some medical check-ups and the world turned upside down.”