(Jamaica Gleaner) – Jamaica is at risk of losing at least three ship calls this week as a “stand-off” over protocols between the Ministry of Health and Wellness and Carnival Cruise Limited deepened last night, with the cruise line threatening to bypass the country if the Government failed to soften its stance on safeguards against the deadly novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
Up to last night, ministry officials were locked in discussions with senior executives of the cruise line who warned of their intention if local authorities did not relent on the stringency of protocol demands.
Carnival’s hard-line position was triggered after one of its ships was initially denied landing privileges to Ocho Rios yesterday until further information was provided. Passengers from nations on Jamaica’s ban list were not allowed to disembark.
“It could be a stand-off the way it is now, but this is something that we have to hold true to,” Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton told The Gleaner last night in summing up the stalemate.
“The Carnival people are saying that they are going to be pulling their vessels from Jamaica. I think they have three due to come in this week. But they were making some demands of us to give them guarantees, based on what they say they would do,” Tufton said.
With more than 3,000 COVID-19 deaths and almost 90,000 infections globally, Jamaican government officials drew a red line last week, preventing the MSC Meraviglia from docking in Ocho Rios.
Tufton said the cruise vessel was denied access because it was in breach of the Quarantine Act, as authorities did not file that they had health concerns on board. The Costa Luminosa was forced to await clearance last Friday and a limited number of persons on board disallowed from disembarking.
The health and wellness minister said last night that the Government was unwilling to exercise the flexibility demanded by Carnival, insisting that the health risks to its population were paramount.
“Our position is that we can’t give those guarantees because there are certain procedures that are required for them to file, prior to the ship landing or within a certain time, and we require those as a matter of our protocols. They are now saying that we don’t have any protocols and they can’t come to Jamaica, so they are bypassing Jamaica, and I think they may be doing it to St Lucia, too.
“My position is simple. We value the cruise industry and the benefits that it brings in terms of the tourists that come … but at this point in time, the reality is that the health and safety of the Jamaican people and population in light of the coronavirus is an absolute priority.”
The Ocho Rios cruise ship schedule has four Carnival cruise vessels – Horizon, Sunrise, Vista, and Sensation – down to make a total of nine visits to Ocho Rios from March 3-31.
So far, Jamaica has recorded no cases of COVID-19, but health authorities are fearful given the rate of spread, with more than 30 new countries impacted in the last week alone.
Speaking to The Gleaner last night, Michael Belnavis, chairman of the National Cruise Council and mayor of St Ann’s Bay, could not confirm if Carnival had decided to pull out of Ocho Rios, but said he would not be surprised of that development given the heightened concern over coronavirus.
Belnavis said he had spoken with Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett earlier in the day but the topic of Carnival suspending calls to Ocho Rios had not arisen.
He said, however, that local officials must take steps to avoid the spread of COVID-19 to Jamaica’s shores – even if there is pushback from cruise lines.
“It’s up to the island to make them feel comfortable, and yes, we want the business, but at the same time, we have to think of our people and ensure that there are no situations where we endanger the population,” Belnavis said.
“It’s a lose-lose situation when you have a ship come and they (passengers) can’t come off the ship. What is a win-win in that situation?”
Belnavis said if one person were to contract the novel coronavirus, it could damage the island’s tourist industry.
“It’s up to them (cruise lines) to insist that they check and double-check and triple-check, to ensure that there are no issues there. No issue with their workers and no issue with the people coming in (passengers). None. Zero tolerance!” he insisted.
Meanwhile, president of the St Ann Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the JHTA Ocho Rios and Runaway Bay chapter, Vana Taylor, declined to comment, saying she was unaware of any decision by the cruise line to change its schedule.
Jamaica has imposed travel restrictions on nationals of five countries – China, Italy, South Korea, Singapore, and Iran.
Non-essential travel is discouraged and personnel at all airports and seaports have been sensitised, the ministry said.
Jamaica has developed the local capacity to test for the virus and set up several quarantine facilities. A COVID-19 Coordinating Task Force will be appointed this week.
People’s National Party President Dr Peter Phillips said on Sunday that his party was ready to be a part of a national response to the threat of coronavirus and possible economic fallout.
“We are prepared to help to manage the crisis if called upon by the Government. We are willing to work in every area and guide the Government through the economic crisis, crime and the corona crisis,” Phillips said.
Speaking in Golden Spring at a political meeting, Phillips said that a PNP government would have moved months ago to set up a national task force and execute an emergency response.