Posted: Friday, May 15, 2020. 4:22 pm CST.
Today marks Belize’s 31st day without anyone testing positive for the novel Coronavirus. We, therefore, are holding steady at 18, the total number of persons to have been infected in our country. Of these, very sadly two have died. But all the others have recovered. So that Belize is now one of only 12 countries and territories in the entire world to be currently COVID-19 free. That is quite an achievement, and I want immediately to congratulate all Belizeans, but in particular, to single out the essential service workers, all essential workers and in particular, of course, the frontline workers – doctors, the nurses, all the medical personnel.
So, while this is quite an achievement, it is not cause to declare victory. The science and the experts, including our own Dr. Manzanero, warn us of the folly, indeed the danger, of any such rashness. And the experience of other countries provides clear examples of how easily things can change; the possibility of regression; the rapidity with which a second wave could overtake us.
I do not want to be a killjoy. Our relative success so far is a reason for thanksgiving, but it must not occasion carelessness or any false sense of security. Precisely that, however, seems to be occurring. Every time we announce any relaxation of our still stringent measures, we at the same time issue strong warnings.
Nevertheless, too many people seem to misinterpret the easing of restrictions as a free pass to completely violate the other important prohibitions that very much remain in place.
I repeat: this ordeal is by no means over and lax or knowing avoidance of the subsisting guardrails is the surest way of taking us back to ground zero.
Thus, even as I proceed now to sketch the newly agreed steps to ameliorate the lockdown, I implore our people not to see this as carte blanche for reckless or heedless behavior.
So, now to the changes that are being made to the SI currently in force.
Last week I referred to the fact that the BTB had approached us about a domestic tourism push. Hotels had already been reopened but questions had arisen about two things: use of hotel pools and beaches; and use of hotel restaurants. The National Oversight Committee, supported by Cabinet, has now decided that use of pools, use of the sea (or rivers in the case of inland resorts) is to be permitted. As always, this is subject to social distancing.
Regarding hotel restaurants, the last position was that they could only offer room service or take-out food. The new arrangements will permit eating at the restaurants so long as those restaurants have outdoor seating facilities. Again, social distancing will obtain so that tables will be six feet apart and not more than 10 persons are to be accommodated at any one time.
Cabinet recognized that charges of discrimination could arise if we did not do for restaurants, generally, what we are doing for hotel restaurants. Accordingly, all open-air restaurants in the country will be allowed to reopen once the amended SI comes into effect. I need to stress again, though, that the social distancing prescriptions will still apply. Indeed, the National Task Force is developing – in fact, completing today – a set of written protocols to guide these restaurants on how properly to operate while still social distancing.
Using the same non-discrimination principle, the general public will now be able to go swimming in our rivers and seas. We can’t, for local tourism purposes, encourage it at resorts, but continue to outlaw it generally. So subject to separation, spacing and the cap on the number of persons that can gather in any one place, Belizeans will be able, once again, to enjoy our aquatic wonders.
Our Doctor Manza, as some of you know, is quite the jogger. So, he certainly sympathized with his fellow aficionados that complained about the difficulties of face mask running. The medical literature bears out the thesis that the masks are not necessary for outdoor exercising. Accordingly, that requirement has been shelved, and so, the “keep fit” people can now literally breathe easier.
Churches can now hold services at their physical facilities, though subject to the 10-person limit. Depending on our continued anti-Corona progress, we should raise that threshold in the next couple of weeks.
The legal return of Belizeans, including students, that want to be repatriated, is now to begin. Those wishing to come home should write to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or our embassies and consulates indicating how and when they would like to arrive. The flow will clearly have to be managed – we can’t have everybody come back at once – and all returnees will be subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Now, the Belizean border jumpers will continue to face criminal charges but they too will be quarantined before their trial can even begin. They will be swabbed even before they’re taken to court to be arraigned, and after arraignment, if they’re given bail, they still go back into quarantine. If they’re given bail, they go back into quarantine, and at the end of the 14 days, those that have not been given bail will be transferred to the Central Prison.
Discussion of this new phase in the easing of restrictions naturally begs the multi-million-dollar question: when will our borders reopen and when, in particular, will the PGIA recommence operations?
I’m afraid I have no comprehensive answer to give, but I can say this much. We are contemplating special and differential treatment for the PGIA, with the hope that general entry into Belize by air can begin even before entry by land and sea. Thus, a July 1st re-start for international flights is the fervent hope of us all. Indeed, it has been the trigger for contingency tourism planning that is now well advanced. Unfortunately, however, we must concede the distinct possibility of a push back. Unless, for instance, either a rapid test is available for us to screen visitors or those visitors can produce a satisfactory passport immunity certificate, it is difficult to see how we could proceed. Otherwise, we will run unacceptable risks that could result in undoing all we have so far been able to achieve in this extended anti-Coronavirus campaign.
The uncertainty is most regrettable but having to deal with moving targets is one of the core problems of the pandemic.
I wind up on this first aspect of today’s brief by confirming that the idea is to have the amended SI come into effect this Friday, May 15th. The drafting is taking place even now and the AG will tomorrow, in his usual inimitable style, go through the final and authoritative version.
Let me turn now to the question of the meeting that I had yesterday morning with the Association of Public Service Senior Managers, the Public Service Union and the Belize National Teachers Union.
We had, I thought, reached agreement subject only to ratification by the Unions’ general membership. My CEO took copious notes, careful notes, and at the end, recited for the Unions GOB’s final proposed position. That was what I thought they agreed. We reduced that oral agreement to writing and the Financial Secretary sent it off to the Unions. Lo and behold, though, this morning we got a response from the President of the BNTU, speaking as well for the PSU though not the APSSM, and that response asked that some critical words be changed. Such changes would, in my view, greatly alter the spirit of the agreement and are, therefore, not acceptable to Government. The Financial Secretary is in the process of writing back to the two unions; so, we will return to square one unless they accept in essence the language that was orally agreed yesterday.
But I repeat: it cannot be that we continue to haggle over the sacrifice we are asking of the two Unions. APSSM has already agreed. The bigger picture is that their substantive salaries and job security are being pretty much guaranteed notwithstanding the Government’s revenue collapse. In the private sector, no class of workers has been so exempt, and very many thousands of people have lost their entire livelihoods. In the circumstances, what we are asking of the PSU and BNTU is very reasonable, too reasonable some would say.
But the idea is not to quarrel. It is to say rather, that the demonstration effect of the Unions’ acceptance or non-acceptance is a public opinion hinge issue. Regarding its core position on this matter, therefore, Government is unbending.
I believe that the blockage situation at the Western Border is resolved and I would be happy to expand on this as we move now to the question and answer session.
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