Published On: Sun, Jun 7th, 2020

Panneflek proposes rapid tests at the airport for visitors

Minister Richard Panneflek (VSA)

PHILIPSBURG –Minister of Health, Richard Panneflek, proposes rapid antigen testing for visitors to the island of St. Maarten. His goal is to test all visitors as a means of protecting both guests and the population and reducing the spread and contamination of COVID-19. Minister Panneflek, whose portfolio includes Health, Social Welfare and Labour, issued a press release on Sunday saying we will have to use rapid testing if we want to reopen St. Maarten responsibly.

The minister will be seeking the approval of Parliament for this proposal. The island did its best in the past few months to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and keep the population safe. However, the time has come for the hard decision on reopening and restoring some sense of normalcy amid the global pandemic. He said he would also be seeking the support of the Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) along with the hotel industry and other public sector partners to get the process completed.

“It is time for the difficult decision to restore the economic pillar of the island healthily and responsibly so our residents can earn a living,” said Minister Panneflek. He said it has to be easy for visitors to come to St. Maarten, and taking innovative steps to do so is the right approach. “We need to do what we can, and it shouldn’t stop here. We must also discuss lifting entry requirements for US Citizens, and it will propel us into the future as leaders of the tourism industry.”

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, some islands, including Antigua and Barbuda, are considering requesting their visitors to test themselves 48-hours before arrival. Some islands have also indicated that they have a mandatory curfew and will restrict group gatherings up to 25 people. “St. Maarten competes with others whether we want to admit it or not. We also have a responsibility to our neighboring islands who use our airport as a hub. If we can protect the passengers transiting to their destinations, then we will be adding value to them, and as Minister of Health, I must take action to avoid rather than repair after.”

He said another option would be asking guests to provide us with a test done 48-hours prior, but the risk is that these guests can still contract the coronavirus within that two-day window. We can consider options such as testing only people with symptoms, but science shows that persons can carry the virus without showing signs. “If we take that approach, it puts our residents at higher risk, which is why we must test everyone.”

Minister Panneflek will ask Parliament to approve a nominal fee, which will be added to visitors’ airfare to cover the cost of administering the Rapid Antigen Test. The idea is also to seek the support of his colleague Minister in the TEATT Ministry to dialogue with industry partners such as airlines and travel agencies to request that they inform visitors of the non-invasive rapid antigen test on arrival.

On May 9, the US Food and Drug Administration approved its first set of Rapid Antigen Test kits. The process is easy to administer, reasonably accurate, and gives results almost immediately. Minister Panneflek said guests would receive a welcome drink and a St. Maarten style reception within 15 minutes of their arrival while getting the rapid test. They can also go through immigration processing at the same time. “In this new normal we believe that this approach will also help the visitors who are anxiously waiting to return to beautiful beaches and sun in the sea to be comfortable choosing our destination.”

With the move to implement rapid antigen testing, the minister’s press release states that St. Maarten could become a global trendsetter. “I think we can set the industry standard for the way economies can reopen while still maintaining a safe environment,” said Panneflek.

Research shows bookings coming out of Miami and Philadelphia to St. Maarten for the major airlines are between 82 to 93 percent, which indicates a high interest from visitors to return.

To address the question which countries to allow or restrict based on their number of COVID-19 cases, Minister Panneflek said at present, the US with a population of 328 million people shows 0.06 percent of its population has contracted the coronavirus. Holland and France have a combined population of 84 million people, and their combined COVID-19 cases amount to 0.02 percent. However, the majority of visitors come from the USA. Based on their population, they have a larger number of COVID-free people who we want to accept to our shores just as much as we wish to welcome the European visitor. “Our goal must be to be responsibly and safely open for all,” said Minister Panneflek.

Delta Airlines Repatriation Flight Pax Boarding SXM Airport 14 May 2020

Panneflek said that the concept to safeguard residents while increasing their potential to earn a living through increased economic activity from our main economic pillar includes possibly putting a staging area on the airport ramp where we can test guests quickly.

St. Maarten’s ports of entry closed on March 17, bringing a significant portion of the island’s economic activity to a halt. Thousands of people are still without work, while others have suffered through having up to 50 percent of their salaries cut because the companies they work for had to close their doors.

The Ministry of VSA is giving food baskets support to residents, but Minister Panneflek says that will not be enough. He said that the hotels, restaurants, and other businesses on the island remain closed, meaning that many residents are still unable to earn a living.

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[Publisher’s note: St. Maarten has no control nor authority over what other governments do in their country. Plus, St. Maarten can only rely on its testing to ensure visitors are COVID-19 free, even though there are no guarantees at this point. Nevertheless, it would be a good step in the right direction in opening back up the island as responsibly as possible. The question is what to do when a visitor tests positive? Send back the plane with everyone who came on it?]